Original paper

Hurricane effects on a shallow lake ecosystem, Lake Okeechobee, Florida (USA)

James, Thomas R.; Chimney, Michael J.; Sharfstein, Bruce; Engstrom, Daniel R.; Schottler, Shawn P.; East, Therese; Jin, Kang-Ren


This unique case study of Lake Okeechobee - a large, shallow and culturally eutrophic lake in south Florida - documents the effects of hurricanes on its water quality, sediment, phytoplankton and submersed aquatic vegetation (SAV). Three hurricanes (Frances and Jeanne in 2004 and Wilma in 2005) that swept directly over the lake led to a number of expected changes throughout the system: 1) high winds produced large seiches, strong waves and currents that redistributed bottom sediments and uprooted SAV and emergent macrophytes; 2) sediment disturbance resulted in increased suspended solids and nutrients in the water column, reduced Secchi transparency and affected SAV recovery, phytoplankton biomass and phytoplankton species dominance; and 3) heavy rainfall increased flows, nutrient loads and lake water levels. Changes in suspended solids, most nutrient concentrations, phytoplankton and SAV persisted for two years after the hurricanes. This persistence was attributed to unconsolidated surface sediment that increased in thickness because of the storms and was more easily resuspended during subsequent wind events. Drought conditions and low lake levels in the second year after the hurricanes led to some recovery of SAV, primarily in the form of the non-vascular musk grass (Chara spp.). The absence of high-intensity hurricanes in the near future should aid in SAV recovery and return the nearshore region to a macrophyte-dominated clear-water state. Our results demonstrate the importance of sediment disturbance and water levels in shallow lakes that are vulnerable to extreme weather events.


lake okeechobeehurricanewater qualitysedimentssediment resuspensionphytoplanktonsubmersed aquatic vegetationdroughtwater levelsalternative stable state