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The impacts of hurricanes and other storms on our waterways

By Andrea Iniguez | Riverside County Public Lands Fellow

Part of the landscape’s history

This August, California made national headlines as Tropical Storm Hilary brought heavy rains, flash flooding, and high winds to Southern California. According to several news outlets, this was the first tropical storm to hit the state in 84 years. While Hilary left most of Southern California relatively unharmed, it obliterated daily rainfall records in at least four across the west and several California cities. Death Valley National Park, for instance, experienced 2.2 inches of rain in a single day, that’s nearly a year’s worth of rainfall in merely 24 hours. As a result, the park’s infrastructure (e.g., State Route 190) was greatly damaged by the storm resulting in its temporary closure.

Undeniably, major storms pose a variety of adverse threats to life and property. However, they serve a natural role in our ecosystem that merits acknowledgment. While their impact varies depending on the storm’s personality and the landscape, hurricanes and tropical storms overall can help keep the earth’s temperature in balance, help combat drought, and help shape the landscapes they pass through. In the desert, for example, flash floods generated by heavy rainfall move sediment and mold its unique scenery. Rivers, and other waterways, can be reshaped by surges in water too. Without these systems, our planet would look vastly different; therefore, these extreme weather events are impeded in the landscape’s history.

Both benefits and challenges

Major storms can produce some unexpected results as well. Recently, Joshua Tree National Park curiously reported tiny salmon-colored crustaceans, called “fairy shrimp”, and other small organisms in the Barker Dam Reservoir following Tropical Storm Hilary. The video shared through the Park’s social media account shows the previously dry reservoir replenished with plenty of water. This change in conditions promoted the hundreds of dormant shrimp eggs to hatch and fill the reservoir with beaming life. This incredible wildlife phenomenon was largely made possible by California’s most recent tropical storm.

On the other hand, major storms can devastate communities and ecosystems as well. For one, it’s not uncommon for powerful storms to displace wildlife and vegetation. Wetlands, which serve as natural barriers during storms, can sometimes be disrupted by them too. Polluted stormwater, for instance, may flow into nearby rivers and streams which can spread toxins harmful to humans and our environment. While some ecosystems heal rather quickly, caused by severe storms.

In general, the benefits and challenges of intense storms are difficult to predict. Also, we cannot overlook the role climate change related to, like in the severity of these weather events. Recently, the National Park Service announced that parts of Death Valley National Park are tentatively scheduled to reopen on October 15th, over a month since it was fully closed to visitors. Along with this exciting news comes an opportunity to reflect on the nuances within our environment and our place within them. Hurricanes and other storms, like any other naturally occurring events, are an important part of the earth’s story. A story that’s worth being told.