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Two decades of hurricanes change coastal ecosystems: Increase algae blooms, fish kills, dead zones

North Carolina's hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017, likely reflect an overall increase in Category 2 and higher storms, states a new study. A team of scientists set out to chronicle how two decades of hurricanes have affected the second-largest estuary in the U.S.: North Carolina's Neuse River, which flows into Pamlico Sound. The National Science Foundation supported the research through its Biological Oceanography and Chemical Oceanography programs, including a rapid response grant awarded after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The team used a long-term dataset to find out how hurricanes have affected the flow of nutrients into the Neuse River estuary and Pamlico Sound. The team tracked changes in populations of phytoplankton -- the base of the food web -- and in fisheries habitats. In 2000, scientists expanded research on the Neuse River, placing sensors on ferries that crisscross Pamlico Sound and assessing changes that resulted from hurricanes. The effects on coastal watersheds were clear from satellite images obtained before and after the storms' passage, according to the researchers. Impacts included increased freshwater flow, flooding and erosion and huge inputs of nutrients and organic matter from wetlands and marshes. Organic matter encompasses everything from lawn clippings, leaves, corn stalks and straw to manure, sludge, wood and food processing wastes.

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