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

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 tornados funnel cloud, every forest fires 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

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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