Like storm clouds, natural disasters carry a silver lining, biologist says

December 11, 2001

CHAPEL HILL -- Humans usually think of forest fires, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes as unmitigated disasters, but such upheavals also do much good, even if most of the good is under-appreciated, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill biologist says in his book "The Silver Lining."

Subtitled "The Benefits of Natural Disasters," the new book details how storms, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods and other apparently catastrophic events renew life and boost diversity in ecosystems throughout the world, making them better for people and other species.

"Optimists claim that every cloud has a silver lining," said Dr. Seth R. Reice, an associate professor of biology specializing in the plant and animal life of streams. "I go even further. Every tornado's funnel cloud, every forest fire's billowing cloud of smoke, indeed every disturbance, has tremendous benefits to the ecosystem it impacts. This is the real silver lining."

Princeton University Press recently published the 240-page volume, which grew out of an article Reice wrote for American Scientist magazine. The biologist wrote it not for scholars, but "for ordinary people with an interest in nature."

"For decades we believed that the most important ecological processes were determined by the interactions among organisms," Reice said. "Our stories and legends and religions are filled with images of animals inflicting catastrophic changes -- foxes in the hen house killing and eating chickens, a plague of locusts devastating wheat crops. Interactions between predators and their prey and between herbivores and plants were seen as part of an understanding of nature that raised biological interactions to preeminent status."

Proponents of "disturbance ecology," however, consider meteorological and geological forces the major players, along with humans, he said. Far more chickens are lost every year to extreme heat and drought than to foxes. Storms far more frequently destroy crops than locusts do.

"Most of us have lived through major 'disasters' such as the eruption of Mount Saint Helens 21 years ago," Reice said. "At first this appeared to be an unmitigated disaster, devastating an entire landscape and rendering it lifeless. But even there, on the slopes and plains surrounding Mount Saint Helens, many diverse species have survived and now thrive. So, was it a disaster? Or was it just part of the natural dynamics of ecosystems?"

Natural forces are paradoxical, he said.

"What we see and fear is their destructive power, yet these same disturbances help create and maintain the biodiversity that benefits both the ecosystem and ourselves," Reice said. "From producing clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, the ecosystems of the Earth make human life possible. Disturbances enhance the capacity of the ecosystems to do these indispensable tasks."

Areas with more diverse plant and animal life are cleaner and healthier for humans, he said

If humans can adopt new ideas about natural disasters in understanding how ecosystems work -- and avoid excessively disturbing the natural world themselves -- then they can effectively manage the systems, Reice said.

"We need an almost radical reconsideration of nature and a resolve not to muck things up as we have in the past."

Forest fires, such as those in Yellowstone several years back, are considered disasters, but that's complete poppycock, the UNC biologist said.

"Fires release trapped nutrients that have been bound up in trees for many decades and return them to the soil," he said. "They also open up the forest to let much more light in. Suddenly, you have a big surge in plants and animals that can use this new environment."

Suppressing forest fires seems the natural thing to do, but it is a huge mistake that makes the inevitable fires far worse when they do come, he said. Small fires can sweep through a healthy young forest quickly with minimal damage. When the Park Service and other agencies prevent fires, dead trees and branches build up, eventually contributing to larger fires that burn much hotter, torching the canopy and destroying trees that otherwise would have survived.

"It's time to retire Smokey the Bear," Reice said.

Likewise, building houses and other structures on the beach and by natural inlets is idiotic, he said. The question is not whether storms and seas will destroy them but when. Why risk loss of life and property when those losses are largely preventable by building further back?

"Every time we get in the way, we create more problems," he said.

Other topics Reice tackles include how dams damage the natural world, how roads lead to rainforest ruin and how paving over the landscape for mall after mall leads to more frequent and severe flooding of urban streams.

Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History called "The Silver Lining" highly accessible and said "the chapters on fire and floods are brilliant."
Note: For a media copy of the book, contact Princeton University's Andrew DeSio at (609) 258-3897. Reice can be reached at (919) 962-1375 or at Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596

UNC News Services

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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