As a storm strengthens, what happens to the animals below the ocean’s surface?
High speed winds on the surface of the ocean create massive waves, which drive the water below in repetitive circular motions. These disturbances in the water column can travel down hundreds of feet to the ocean’s floor, where they churn up sediment and can even move heavy objects, like rocks, and damage reefs. As the wind alters currents and mixes cold, deep water with warmer surface water, there can be drastic shifts in ocean temperatures and salinity levels.
Interestingly, sharks, marine mammals and other species have a keen natural sense of the warning signs when it comes to hurricanes! Here are a few ways animals respond to these condition changes:
Sharks can detect subtle pressure changes in the water caused by the approaching hurricane, and often swim far afield or deep into the ocean to avoid the coming storm—often many hours and even days before storms hit. How do they do it? Researchers hypothesize that sharks rely on highly sensitive mechanoreceptors within their inner ears to detect small changes in pressure.
Similarly, marine mammals and turtles often move to calmer waters outside of the storm’s path or find sheltered places to weather the onslaught. It is theorized that cetaceans in particular can sense changes in water surface salinity as heavy outer bands of rain ahead of the hurricane reach them, which functions as their early warning system. The biggest challenge for these animals during intense storms is getting enough air—torrential downpours or extremely rough seas can lead to drownings when they attempt to catch a breath.
Some sea birds have been known to fly into the eye of a storm to avoid being blown about by hurricane winds. Depending on the duration and path of the storm, those birds can sometimes end up very far from home. Other birds are sensitive to barometric changes and flee well before storms hit.
Climate change is driving more and more intense hurricanes, and these animals and their environments are losing the ability to bounce back, much like our coastal human communities. We can curb the pattern of intensifying storms—and protect people living in coastal communities—by combatting climate change.