Everywhere scientists look, they see disrupted patterns in and along the Gulf of Mexico. Coral reefs, flocks of sea birds, crab-and shrimp-filled meadows and dune-crowned beaches were wrapped up in — and altered by — the force of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Dennis.
"Nothing's been like this," said Abby Sallenger, a U.S. Geological Survey oceanographer, during a recent flight over the northern Gulf Coast to study shoreline changes.
For him, the changes are mind-boggling: Some barrier islands are nearly gone; on others, beaches are scattered like bags of dropped flour.
Hurricanes have been kneading the Gulf Coast like putty for eons, carving out inlets and bays, creating beaches and altering plant and animal life — but up to now, the natural world has largely been able to rebound. Trees, marine life and shoreline features tourists and anglers enjoyed in recent years were largely the same types as those 17th century buccaneers and explorers encountered.
But scientists say the future could be different. Nature might not be able to rebound so quickly. The reason: the human factor.
"Natural systems are resilient and bounce back," said Susan Cutter, a geographer with the University of South Carolina. "The problem is when we try to control nature, rather than letting her do what she does."
The seas are rising, the planet is getting hotter and commercial and residential development is snowballing. Add those factors to a predicted increase in nasty hurricanes and what results is a recipe for potentially serious natural degradation, some say.
"It may bring about a situation (in which) the change is so rapid, it's something that's very different from what the ecosystem experienced over the last three, four thousand years," said Kam-biu Liu, a Louisiana State University professor and hurricane paleoscientist. "We may be losing part of our beaches, we may lose our coastal wetlands, and our coastal forests may change permanently to a different kind of ecosystem."
Between 2004 and 2005, "we've basically demolished our coastline from Galveston (Texas) to Panama City, Fla.," said Barry Keim, the state climatologist in Louisiana. "It's getting to the point that we might have to rethink what our coastal map looks like."
The Gulf, scientists say, won't turn into an environmental wasteland, but it could be less rich in flora and fauna.
Surveys of the washed out Chandeleur Islands, an arc of barrier islands off the coast of Louisiana, found nesting grounds for brown pelicans, royal terns, sandwich terns and black skimmers gone.
"Hopefully the birds will be resilient enough to move to other areas," said Tom Hess, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "We will have to see."
Salt water spread by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita killed marsh grasses across the Louisiana coast, leaving little left to eat for Louisiana's most hunted bird — the duck.