UNC-CH marine scientist says hurricane could be catastrophic for Pamlico Sound

CHAPEL HILL - Water testing and a flight over North Carolina's Pamlico Sound - the nation's largest lagoonal estuary - provided new evidence this week that the catastrophic flooding and runoff following Hurricane Floyd will damage the sound and connected waters.

Both commercial and recreational fisheries could be hurt along much of the southeastern U.S. coast between Virginia and northern Florida, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill marine scientist.

The first direct assessment of potentially adverse marine life conditions took place Wednesday (Oct. 6). During the survey, researchers observed low oxygen in the sound and strikingly different-colored water.

"The chocolate-colored sediment plume associated with flood discharge from Floyd has now extended into Pamlico Sound and also is making its way down Core Sound," said Dr. Hans Paerl, Kenan professor of marine sciences.

"We found low oxygen 'dead zone' conditions in bottom waters in a region of the sound under the influence of the sediment plume," Paerl said. "This is obviously not a good development. In addition, nutrient enrichment associated with the plume has the potential for triggering fall and early spring phytoplankton blooms which could further fuel the low-oxygen conditions."

If the excessive freshwater discharge continues into next spring, scientists should detect a low-density freshwater "lens" covering denser saltwater, much like oil floating on vinegar in unshaken salad dressing, he said.

Resulting isolation of salty bottom water prevents oxygen replenishment from the atmosphere, leading to development of the oxygen-deficient dead zone. Algal blooms can exacerbate the condition, because decaying blooms will ultimately sink to the bottom, further contributing to oxygen depletion. Bottom water with little or no dissolved oxygen would prove uninhabitable to finfish and shellfish.


Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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