Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 419–429 | Cite as

Estuarine Phytoplankton Responses to Hurricanes and Tropical Storms with Different Characteristics (Trajectory, Rainfall, Winds)

  • Michael S. WetzEmail author
  • Hans W. Paerl


We examined the short-term (<1 month post-storm) impact of storms [Tropical Storm (TS) Helene in 2000, Hurricane (H) Isabel in 2003, H Alex, Tropical Depression (TD) Bonnie and TS Charley in 2004] varying in their trajectory, wind and rainfall characteristics, on water column structure, nutrients, and phytoplankton biomass in North Carolina’s Neuse R. Estuary (NRE). Data are presented from two sampling programs, ModMon (biweekly) and FerryMon (measurements made every 3 min daily). Helene’s winds mixed the previously stratified water column, delivering sediment-bound nutrients to the euphotic zone, and localized freshwater input from Helene was also evident. Mean chlorophyll a concentrations in the mesohaline portion of the NRE, where N was strongly limiting before the storm (molar DIN:DIP < 1), more than doubled after the storm. Unlike with Helene, the water column was well mixed before passage of Isabel, and nutrient concentrations were high. As a result, minimal impact on phytoplankton biomass was detected despite Isabel’s high winds and significant freshwater input. In fact, conditions became less favorable for phytoplankton growth after the storm. Alex was fast moving and relatively small, but its winds were sufficient to mix the water column. Although data from ModMon suggest that chlorophyll a was only slightly higher after passage of Alex, FerryMon detected an ephemeral bloom that was missed by ModMon. Overall, these results suggest that relatively small tropical storms and hurricanes can lead to significant increases in phytoplankton biomass. However, the phytoplankton response depends on both the characteristics of a particular storm and the physical–chemical conditions of the water column before storm passage. Finally, the ephemeral bloom that developed as a result of Alex, the strong response of phytoplankton in the mesohaline portion of the estuary to nutrient inputs, and their patchiness on several other occasions suggests that storms may create “hot spots” for trophic transfer and biogeochemical dynamics in estuaries. Adaptive sampling is necessary to capture these features and to fully understand the impact of perturbations such as storms on estuarine ecosystem functioning.


Phytoplankton Estuary Storms Nutrients Mixing Freshwater input 



We thank the many technicians and students who have participated in the ModMon and FerryMon programs over the years. We also thank two anonymous reviewers whose constructive comments helped to greatly improve this manuscript. ModMon and FerryMon are supported by the North Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources and Community Development, the US EPA STAR Program, the North Carolina Sea Grant Program, and the National Science Foundation Ecosystems, Environmental Geochemistry and Biology, and Ecology of Infectious Diseases programs. MSW was supported by a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Sciences DivisionU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Institute of Marine SciencesThe University of North Carolina-Chapel HillMorehead CityUSA

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