Hurricane Newton 2016
The night of 6 September, Hurricane Newton reached the Sonoran coast, somewhere just north of San Carlos. All day long, the rain came down and the wind gradually increased. By midnight the wind reached its howling peak, driving the rain sideways, knocking down utility poles and fences, uprooting trees and tearing at roofs and walls. The last privately-owned weather station peaked at over 120 km/h before it too was torn apart.
Hurricanes are a part of life here on the shore of the Sea of Cortez. Fortunately for us, most hurricanes, born far to the south, usually head out to the open Pacific and only come ashore in this general area once about every six years. Those that pass by will exert a strong influence on local weather though, and much of our summer rain is tied to the effects of not-too-distant hurricanes.
From a naturalistic point of view, hurricanes can be seen as destructive elements, or like forest fires, they can be seen as natural, periodic disturbances that re-arrange the environment, tearing out the old, and making space for new growth and new life.
Heavy rains create flash floods, washing out much of the plant life that covered the canyon floors and making room for new growth.. Much of the rain will soak into the ground, replenishing the groundwater, which will provide a long-term supply for deep-rooted trees and the vegetation of the canyon floors.
But the real changes wrought by hurricanes are found on the shore of the sea. Hurricane Newton created eight-metre-high waves that rolled up the beaches and sucked away millions of cubic metres of sand and gravel. Any turtle nests on an exposed beach would have been buried and drowned or smashed and drawn out to sea. Near-shore marine life also took a severe thrashing, uprooted and thrown ashore or dragged out into deeper water, to be fed on by a variety of marine predators and scavengers.
A walk along the shore after a hurricane reveals a glimpse into the tremendous diversity of near-shore marine life. Colourful sponges, soft corals in a variety of shapes and colours, sea cucumbers, starfish and a diverse array of molluscs lay tangled with masses of marine algae (seaweed) and unfortunate fish along the upper edge of shore.
I once found a dead bat, its huge curved claws revealing its identity as a Pacific Fishing Bat, the only species of bat known to catch marine fishes. These bats nest and roost in deep caves and crevices on islands in the Gulf. Such niches are no safe harbour when the island is being hammered by giant storm waves.
So much death is a source of food for crabs, shrimp and lobsters, as well as many other opportunistic scavengers. Gulls, terns, frigatebirds , crows and vultures also take advantage of the sudden smorgasbord laid out along the shore. Underneath the seaweed wrack are thousands of tiny crustaceans, amphipod beach-hoppers and isopod sea roaches. They have already begun to consume all of this waste and return it to the ecosystem. And along the rocky intertidal zone, new space has been made available for barnacles, oysters, scallops sponges, algae and corals.
All of this is no consolation to the people who have to deal with torn-off roofs, downed trees, and the temporary loss of such essential services as water, electricity and phone service. It only takes a couple of days without electricity to end up with a lot of spoiled food. And when your water tank runs dry, the dishes pile up, clothes and bedding go unwashed, and life gets unpleasant It makes you truly understand how dependent we are on the amenities of modern technology, and how much better they make our lives.