July 1, 2022

Setting the Record Straight: Natural Disasters


This archived article was written by: Nathaniel Woodward

A pretty common monicker given to products these days is the word “Natural” a nice sounding sales-pitch I find myself laughing at. From a biologist standpoint, nature will mess you up. Plain and simple, nature is completely indifferent to our feelings and will not hesitate to go about its merry natural little way regardless of your home locale or vacation plans. From arsenic and cyanide to floods, fire, tornados and hurricanes, the natural world is a dangerous place. Human foibles and necessities aside, the question was asked of me “are natural disasters good or bad for the environment?”

That is an excellent question and the answer is interesting, yes and no. To examine this properly, we need to take one-major factor out of the equation entirely, us. Humans are a unique group of organisms that interfere with the “natural” cycles as much as possible.

For millennia and up to this day, we oddly blame these calamities on our various folkloric deities using them to justify our petty pious indignation. Yet, the fact remains that these natural forces are well, natural, they come and go year after year regardless of which sacrifices we make. So no matter how much we beg, gravel and whine, we need to make peace with some pretty tough facts, hurricanes are still going to happen and George R.R. Martin killed Hodor. Sorry, off topic, but it still hurts.

So why are these disasters good for the environment? The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, it’s been doing its thing for a lot longer than we’ve been around and life still exists in spite. Organisms have retained beneficial traits over the years that help them survive, like the bristlecone pine found in the Rocky Mountains of the United States. These amazing trees rely on the extreme heat of forest fires in order for their exceptionally tight pinecones to explode, releasing the next generation of seeds onto the freshly scorched forest floor. Take a drive through Yellowstone National Park and you’ll see exactly what I mean. I heard a Division of Wildlife Resource’s biologist quip “Wildlife biologist love forest fires, but fisheries biologist hate them.” This is an excellent anecdote which demonstrates that this natural disaster can be both good and bad, depending on the individual biome affected.

Now why are natural disasters bad for the environment? Not all disasters are created equal, the difference between a category one and five hurricane is huge. While one can serve to distribute nutrients throughout a stagnated waterway, a severe storm may serve to alter the ecosystem completely, wiping out indigenous plants and animals and in short order removing a specialized specie entirely.

However, if and when such events occur, some pretty cool biology takes place as new species, now lacking any competition, move in on their competitor’s turf and expand the genetic pool.

This adaptive radiation may be the reason humans even got a shot on the evolutionary tree; if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out by whatever natural event destroyed them, our mammalian ancestors may not have had the resources to compete and therefore expand our genetic pool. So while the answer is slightly vague, you can begin to grasp the natural disasters may not be able to be classified into “good” or “bad” categorize, just “natural.”

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