The Language of Nature

Destruction. Upheaval. Change. Rebirth. In the two years since Hurricane Andrew, Biscayne National Park has had to learn an entirely new vocabulary

In one of Lirman's photos, an upended elkhorn branch cemented down to the bottom takes on the appearance of a fungi-encrusted stump, with new growths poking up like miniature mirror-images from what had been the base of their larger ancestor. Lirman, who arrived at the Rosenstiel School from California a few weeks before Andrew, points out that by scattering elkhorn fragments, the hurricane in fact increased the total coral cover of the reef. "[Andrew] may actually have improved it somewhat," he says. "In the long run I think it's going to be a net benefit."

Not all is sweetness and light on the reef, however. A year ago Fong and Lirman were witnesses to disturbing evidence that the corals might have suffered hidden, lingering trauma from Andrew. "Just by happenstance we happened to be out on the reef when it started bleaching," Fong says. "Bleaching," a stress-induced condition that has struck local reefs repeatedly in the last decade, occurs when coral polyps expel the single-celled symbiotic algae that help them survive. Without algae the coral turns bone-white; often it dies. "We found out from another scientist at work further south that the reef there had the same temperature and salinity regime and didn't bleach, but the hurricane-damaged one did; 25 percent of the coral cover was bleached," Fong recalls. "That was pretty significant. It was all sublethal, though; it didn't cause any death. Recovered very well. But this summer the water is heating up pretty quickly, and we're going to see how things go."

The University of Georgia's James Porter has drawn his own conclusions from the Biscayne reefs' rebound. Comparing observations made in relatively healthy Biscayne National Park with data he's obtained elsewhere in the Keys over the past eight years, Porter believes he's found evidence that salty, poor-quality Florida Bay water is responsible for the dramatic coral deaths he has recorded farther south on the Florida Reef. Drawing their water from other sources, the Biscayne reefs are shielded from Florida Bay's effects. "We believe that that is the explanation for why the reefs of Biscayne National Park are growing," Porter says. "Despite Hurricane Andrew, they're doing just fine. It is because they are removed from Florida Bay water and protected from it by nature of the oceanography and the presence of Elliott Key and Key Largo, which are the two longest keys in the Florida Keys. They protect those reefs in the north from Florida Bay water."

The irony can't escape Porter -- that the reefs he expected to be thoroughly demolished by Andrew are in fact doing better than reefs untouched by the storm. But he prefers to point out a larger irony, one arising from the surprising toughness and adaptability that South Florida's natural systems -- so long in retreat from man's intrusions, so often portrayed as enfeebled -- showed under attack by the ultimate heavyweight. That strength throws into sharp relief the collapse of man-made, urbanized South Dade. It also offers what Porter thinks is one of the most critical lessons of Hurricane Andrew. "It's important to emphasize that the natural communities of South Florida were well-adapted to withstand hurricanes," he says. "And in fact we've been back to Elliott Key this year, and you can still see signs of destruction. But it looks like a beautiful place, and unless you knew there was a hurricane, you might not be impressed with the destruction. In fact you'd be impressed with the opposite, impressed with how lush the plant communities on the island look. To my mind this is in contrast to the human communities of South Florida, which were so horribly damaged by these hurricanes. And I think again, the problem that occurred within the human communities of South Florida is that they were not built with the idea that this would be a natural and recurring phenomenon."

A natural and recurring phenomenon. Now, that's something to think about.

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