Doing Science in Isabel's Wake

23 September 2003 (All day)

Wave ... goodbye. A pile of debris is almost all that remains of a pier at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science on Gloucester Point.

Researchers in the eastern United States are cleaning up--and heading into the field--in the wake of last week's Hurricane Isabel.

At the Virginia Institute of Marine Science on Gloucester Point, "there's not a single plank left" of two piers used by researchers, says fisheries scientist Romuald Lipcius. Towering seas toppled a two-story house used to process and store samples and claimed a half-dozen large aquarium tanks on the larger pier. Two studies of artificial blue crab hatcheries and benthic communities "will be really sidelined," Lipcius says. Further north along Chesapeake Bay, the storm damaged sea water systems at two University of Maryland labs in Solomons and Cambridge and knocked down an aquatic greenhouse, causing an estimated total of at least $300,000 in damage.

Physicists were hit by the storm, too: The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, lost power and the helium escaped from its cryogenic system. It will take at least a month to recool the system, says spokesperson Linda Ware, putting on hold experiments on the structure of atomic nuclei.

At the same time, the storm created new opportunities. Biologists are fanning out with nets to examine ecosystems buffeted by the storm. "Sometimes a hurricane can actually be quite beneficial" for some species, Lipcius says. Crab larvae, for instance, can be swept toward sheltering shores. Researchers also look forward to seeing if the storm revitalized fish habitat by mixing up a zone of oxygen-depleted, lifeless deep water created by nutrient runoff in the northern bay, says ecologist Dennis Whigham of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland.

Geologists, meanwhile, are having a field day examining coastal changes, including a new channel splitting Hatteras Island on North Carolina's Outer Banks. The U.S. Geological Survey mapped 600 kilometers of coastline with plane-mounted sensors before and after the storm. USGS oceanographer Abby Sallenger says the data could be "the best gathered on the regional-scale impact of hurricanes on beaches" and will provide "a great opportunity" to test models of how storms reshape coasts.

With reporting by Edna Francisco, Charles Seife, and Erik Stokstad

Related sites
Virginia Institute of Marine Science
USGS Extreme Storm Impact Studies

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