, Volume 26, Issue 5, pp 1329-1343

First online:

Water quality and phytoplankton as indicators of hurricane impacts on a large estuarine ecosystem

  • Benjamin L. PeierlsAffiliated withInstitute of Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Email author 
  • , Robert R. ChristianAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, East Carolina University
  • , Hans W. PaerlAffiliated withInstitute of Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Three sequential hurricanes in the fall of 1999 provided the impetus for assessing multi-annual effects on water quality and phytoplankton dynamics in southwestern Pamlico Sound, North Carolina. Two and a half years of post-hurricane data were examined for short- and long-term impacts from the storms and >100 year flooding. Salinity decreased dramatically and did not recover until May 2000. Inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations were briefly elevated during the flooding, but later returned to background levels. Dissolved organic carbon concentrations declined through the whole study period, but did not appear to peak as was observed in the Neuse River estuary, a key tributary of the Sound. Light attenuation was highest in the fall to spring following the storms and was best correlated with chlorophylla concentrations. Phytoplankton biomass (chla) increased and remained elevated until late spring 2000 when concentrations returned to pre-storm levels and then cycled seasonally. Phytoplankton community composition varied throughout the study, reflecting the complex interaction between physiological optimal and combinations of salinity, residence time, nutrient availability, and possibly grazing activity. Floodwater advection or dilution from upstream maxima may have controlled the spatial heterogeneity in total and group-specific biomass. The storms produced areas of shortterm hypoxia, but hypoxic events continued during the following two summers, correlating strongly with water column stratification. Nitrogen loading to the southwestern sound was inferred from network analysis of previous nitrogen cycling studies in the Neuse River estuary. Based on these analyses, nutrient cycling and removal in the sub-estuaries would be decreased under high flow conditions, confirming observations from other estuaries. The inferred nitrogen load from the flood was 2–3 times the normal loading to the Sound; this estimate was supported by the substantial algal bloom. After 8-mos, the salinity and chla data indicated the Sound had returned to pre-hurricane conditions, yet phytoplankton community compositional changes continued through the multi-year study period. This is an example of long-term aspects of estuarine recovery that should be considered in the context of a predicted 10–40 yr period of elevated tropical storm activity in the western Atlantic Basin.