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After Matthew: Hurricane provides fertile fields for study

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Researchers with Clemson and the University of South Carolina at laboratories on Hobcaw Barony view the effects of Hurricane Matthew in a different light than most people.

A tree down in the woods poses a problem for a golf course manager; it has to be removed. For a scientist, a tree blown down by a hurricane presents a long list of study opportunities. It’s the same for saltwater incursion, the killer of shrubbery and lawn grass.

Alex Chow of Clemson’s Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science said another possibility is a study of the trees that survived. “We could do a survey on the coast to see which tree withstands strong wind best,” he said.

Dennis Allen, resident director of the USC Marine Field Lab at the Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences, said most opportunities for study will be associated with the extent of the storm surge and the movement of not only saltwater into the surrounding forest but the displacement of huge amounts of Spartina rack, the skeletal material of the 2015 growing season.

The marsh, he said, had gone into flower and seed before the hurricane struck. “It’s pretty resilient,” he said, “Impacts will be minimal.” Allen said oyster reefs and mud flats got some protection because the worst part of the storm hit at high tide. “That was bad for the beach, the dunes and the edge of the forest,” he said, “but the flooding meant minimal impact on the intertidal zone.”

Clemson researchers are still studying Hurricane Hugo’s saltwater impact on the upland forest at Hobcaw. Fortunately, Hurricane Matthew’s surge didn’t reach as high. It was 6 feet compared to Hugo’s 9-to-12-foot surge.

Allen said the USC Marine Lab’s meteorological station held tight through the winds. “We have a total anatomy of the storm, showing before, during and after wind, rain and the pressure drop in the eye.” Peak wind was 70 mph, Allen said, with a surge of 6 feet above the predicted high tide. “The wind shifting at the time of high tide was very fortunate,” he said. “Had easterly winds prevailed for another hour or two, there would have been a lot more flooding and beach damage. The northwest winds kept the surge from growing higher and started reversing it.”

Allen said the rush of freshwater into Winyah Bay from Hurricane Matthew’s rain, is providing an interesting comparison with last year’s flood and freshwater shock. “There is a tremendous amount of water coming down the rivers,” he said. “That freshwater has pushed into Winyah Bay and kept salinity at a zero level from surface to bottom for two weeks. That extra volume of water and lower salinity has had an impact on North Inlet as well. The overflow from Winyah Bay pushes through the creeks into the inlet.”

Allen said the freshwater has likely put an end to shrimp baiting season. Juvenile and sub-adult white shrimp have moved into the ocean’s saltwater. Oyster beds will be closed too because of all the freshwater carrying bacteria. Without any more bad weather, he said, oysters should be edible through the winter once the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control gives approval for harvest.

“All this is very predictable when a major event occurs,” he said, “but nevertheless it’s very strange.”

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