On Dams & Storm Surges

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What would you say if I told you there was a connection between dams and the damage coastal communities are faced with after a storm surge? It may not seem obvious at first but as you will see, plants form a major connection between the two. Now more than ever, our species is dealing with the collective actions of the last few generations. Rare storm events are becoming more and more of a certainty as we head deeper into a future wrought with man-made climate change. The reality of this will only become more apparent for those smart enough to listen. Rivers are complex ecosystems that, like anything else in nature, are dynamic. Changes upstream will manifest themselves in a multitude of ways further downstream.

The idea of a dam is maddeningly brilliant. Much like our cells utilize chemical concentration gradients to produce biological power, we have converged on a similar solution to generate the electricity that powers our modern lives. A wall is built to block a waterway and store massive quantities of water on one side. That water is then forced through a channel where it turns turbines, which generate power. The problem is that the reservoir created to store all of that water drowns out ecosystems and the organisms that rely upon them (including humans). 

 

Here in the United States, we got a little dam crazy in the last few decades. With an estimated 75,000 dams in this country, many of which are obsolete, these structures have had an immense impact. One major issue with dams is the sediment load. As erosion occurs upstream, all of the debris that would normally be washed downstream gets caught behind the dam. Far from merely an engineering issue, a dams nature to trap sediment has some serious ecological impacts as well. 

Until humans came along, all major rivers eventually made their way to the coast. A free flowing river continually brings sediments from far inland, down to the mouth where they build up to form the foundation of coastal wetlands. Vegetation such as sedges, grasses, and mangroves readily take root in these nutrient-rich sediments, creating an amazingly rich and productive ecosystem. Less apparent, however, is the fact that these wetlands provide physical protection.

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Storm surges caused by storms like hurricanes can send tons upon tons of water barreling towards the coast. In places where healthy wetland vegetation is present, these surges are absorbed and much of that water never has a chance to hit the coast. In areas where these wetlands have vanished, there is nothing stopping the full brunt of the surge and we end up with a situation like we saw following Katrina or Sandy and are facing now with Harvey and Irma. Coastal wetlands provide the United States alone with roughly $23 billion in storm protection annually

These wetlands rely on this constant supply of sediment to keep them alive, both literally and figuratively. As anyone who has been to Florida can tell you, erosion is a powerful force that can eat away an entire coastline. Without constant input of sediment, there is nowhere for vegetation to grow and thus coastal wetlands are rapidly eroded away. This is where dams come in. An estimated 970,000 km (600,000 mi) of rivers dammed translates into a lot of sediment not reaching our coasts. The wetlands that rely on these sediments are being starved and are rapidly disappearing as a result. Add to that the fact that coastal developments take much of the rest and we are beginning to see a very bleak future for coastal communities both in the US and around the world. 

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

How Do Palms Survive Hurricanes?

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The destructive force of typhoons and hurricanes are no joking matter. Human structures are torn to shreds and flooded in the blink of an eye. It is devastating to say the least. With all of this destruction, one must wonder how native flora and fauna have coped with such forces over millions of years. The true survivors of these sorts of storms are the palms. What would completely shred an oak seems to ruffle a palm tree. What is it about palms that allows them to survive these storms intact? 

To better understand palm adaptations, one must first consider their place on the evolutionary tree. Palms are monocots and they have more in common with grasses than they do trees like oaks or pines. Their wood evolved independently of other tree species. Take a look at a palm stump. Instead of rings, you will see a dense structure of tiny straws that resemble the cross section of a telephone wire. This is because palms do not produce secondary xylem tissues that give other trees their rings. This makes them far more bendy than their dicotyledonous neighbors.

Whereas the woods of oaks and maples are really good at supporting a lot of branch weight, such wood is considerably more rigid than that of palms. Palms forgo heavy branches for large leaves and therefore invest more in flexibility. The main stems of some palm species can bend as much as 40 to 50 degrees before snapping, a perfect adaptation to dealing with regular storm surges. 

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Another adaptation of the palms are their leaves. Unlike most trees, palms don't bother with spindly branches. Instead, they produce a canopy of large leaves supported by a flexible midrib. These act sort of like large feathers, allowing their canopy to readily shed water and bend against even the strongest winds. Although their leaves will snap if buffeted hard enough, palm canopies accrue considerably less damage under such conditions. Another adaptation exhibited by palm leaves is their ability to fold up like a paper fan. This reduces their otherwise large surface area against powerful winds. 

Finally, palms have rather dense roots. They sacrifice size for quantity. Instead of a few large roots anchored into the soil, palms produce a multitude of smaller roots that spread out into the upper layers of the soil. This is especially useful when growing in sand. By increasing the number of roots they put down, palms are able to hold on to a larger volume of soil and therefore possess a much heavier base. This keeps them stranding upright in all but the worst conditions. 

Of course, these are rather broad generalizations. Not all palms have evolved in response to such punishing weather events. Research has shown that such adaptations are more prevalent in palms growing in places like the Caribbean than they are in palms growing in the rainforests of South America. Regardless, their phylogenetic history has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for quite some time. 

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Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2]