, Volume 141, Issue 3, pp 307–332 | Cite as

Two decades of tropical cyclone impacts on North Carolina’s estuarine carbon, nutrient and phytoplankton dynamics: implications for biogeochemical cycling and water quality in a stormier world

  • Hans W. PaerlEmail author
  • Joseph R. Crosswell
  • Bryce Van Dam
  • Nathan S. Hall
  • Karen L. Rossignol
  • Christopher L. Osburn
  • Alexandria G. Hounshell
  • Randolph S. Sloup
  • Lawrence W. HardingJr.


Coastal North Carolina (USA) has experienced 35 tropical cyclones over the past 2 decades; the frequency of these events is expected to continue in the foreseeable future. Individual storms had unique and, at times, significant hydrologic, nutrient-, and carbon (C)-loading impacts on biogeochemical cycling and phytoplankton responses in a large estuarine complex, the Pamlico Sound (PS) and Neuse River Estuary (NRE). Major storms caused up to a doubling of annual nitrogen and tripling of phosphorus loading compared to non-storm years; magnitudes of loading depended on storm tracks, forward speed, and precipitation in NRE-PS watersheds. With regard to C cycling, NRE-PS was a sink for atmospheric CO2 during dry, storm-free years and a significant source of CO2 in years with at least one storm, although responses were storm-specific. Hurricane Irene (2011) mobilized large amounts of previously-accumulated terrigenous C in the watershed, mainly as dissolved organic carbon, and extreme winds rapidly released CO2 to the atmosphere. Historic flooding after Hurricanes Joaquin (2015) and Matthew (2016) provided large inputs of C from the watershed, modifying the annual C balance of NRE-PS and leading to sustained CO2 efflux for months. Storm type affected biogeochemical responses as C-enriched floodwaters enhanced air–water CO2 exchange during ‘wet’ storms, while CO2 fluxes during ‘windy’ storms were largely supported by previously-accumulated C. Nutrient loading and flushing jointly influenced spatio-temporal patterns of phytoplankton biomass and composition. These findings suggest the importance of incorporating freshwater discharge and C dynamics in nutrient management strategies for coastal ecosystems likely to experience a stormier future.


Tropical cyclones Carbon/nutrient cycling Estuarine Coastal Phytoplankton North Carolina 



We appreciate the assistance of J. Braddy, A. Joyner, H. Walker, B. Abare, B. Peierls and all students and technicians that participated in the field and laboratory work supporting this publication. This research was funded by NSF Projects DEB 1119704, DEB 1240851, OCE 0825466, OCE 0812913, OCE 1705972, OCE 1706009, and CBET 0932632, the Defense Coastal/Estuarine Research Program (DCERP) Project Number: RC-2245, The North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality (ModMon Program), the Lower Neuse Basin Association, NC Sea Grant and the UNC Water Resources Research Institute.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (PDF 17 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hans W. Paerl
    • 1
    Email author
  • Joseph R. Crosswell
    • 2
  • Bryce Van Dam
    • 1
  • Nathan S. Hall
    • 1
  • Karen L. Rossignol
    • 1
  • Christopher L. Osburn
    • 3
  • Alexandria G. Hounshell
    • 1
  • Randolph S. Sloup
    • 1
  • Lawrence W. HardingJr.
    • 4
  1. 1.Institute of Marine SciencesUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillMorehead CityUSA
  2. 2.CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, Ecosciences PrecinctBrisbaneAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric SciencesNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA
  4. 4.Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic SciencesUniversity of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

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