Photo: Chris Christner (flickr)
We tend to associate hurricanes with destruction.
However, hurricanes that sweep across the Atlantic Ocean can be constructive, at least for barren, relatively lifeless stretches of ocean.
Environmental scientists, including Steve Babin at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, have found that in a hurricane’s wake, tiny ocean plants called phytoplankton tend to do very well and bloom in large numbers.
Babin thinks that what’s happening is that when a hurricane passes over so called “ocean deserts,” it stirs up the water. The churning dredges up cooler, nutrient-rich water from deeper in the ocean. This does two things. First, it brings the phytoplankton that are already there closer to the surface, where they have greater access to sunlight. Second, the nutrients that swirl up to the surface create the perfect condition for a healthy phytoplankton bloom.
This is interesting for a few reasons. Phytoplankton are the basis for the entire ocean food chain, and phytoplankton are known to absorb lots of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As we all know, carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gasses contributing to global warming. So, at least theoretically, by giving life to phytoplankton, hurricanes actually help combat global warming.
Or maybe not.
Other researchers have found that when hurricanes stir up ocean water they also release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We all know that more carbon dioxide escaping into the sky is bad for global warming. Factor in the chance that global warming may be increasing the number and intensity of hurricanes, and now it’s not at all clear what we should think of hurricanes.