How Do Hurricanes Affect the Environment?

Hurricanes can devastate wooded ecosystems and remove all the foliation from forest canopies, and they can change habitats so drastically that the indigenous animal populations suffer as a result. Endangered species in tropical, estuarine and coastal habitats are particularly at risk when hurricanes strike.

The winds from hurricanes deliver the most visible environmental impact. Flying over a rainforest after a hurricane often reveals that the canopy layer is completely gone, which impacts the lives of birds and animals that had formerly used the area directly beneath that canopy as their habitat. Wooded areas, such as swamps and marshes, undergo significant destruction as winds uproot and demolish trees.

Storm surge and considerable rainfall combine with the strong winds to threaten the food supply that is available to remaining animals not killed by the storm. When Hurricane Hugo hit Puerto Rico in 1989, half of the remaining Puerto Rican parrots in the world died in the storm. The Cozumel Thrasher, which only lives on the Mexican island of Cozumel, almost became extinct after Hurricane Gilbert hit the island in 1988.

Hurricanes also change the shape of coastal landscapes by shifting huge amounts of sand. Hurricanes in 2004, 2005 and 2008 caused major shifts in the Gulf of Mexico’s coast; between Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which both hit in 2005, about 73 square miles of land were lost to the sea.