Using a Bayesian network to understand the importance of coastal storms and undeveloped landscapes for the creation and maintenance of early successional habitat


Coastal storms have consequences for human lives and infrastructure but also create important early successional habitats for myriad species. For example, storm-induced overwash creates nesting habitat for shorebirds like piping plovers (Charadrius melodus). We examined how piping plover habitat extent and location changed on barrier islands in New York, New Jersey, and Virginia after Hurricane Sandy made landfall following the 2012 breeding season. We modeled nesting habitat using a nest presence/absence dataset that included characterizations of coastal morphology and vegetation. Using a Bayesian network, we predicted nesting habitat for each study site for the years 2010/2011, 2012, and 2014/2015 based on remotely sensed spatial datasets (e.g., lidar, orthophotos). We found that Hurricane Sandy increased piping plover habitat by 9 to 300% at 4 of 5 study sites but that one site saw a decrease in habitat by 27%. The amount, location, and longevity of new habitat appeared to be influenced by the level of human development at each site. At three of the five sites, the amount of habitat created and the time new habitat persisted were inversely related to the amount of development. Furthermore, the proportion of new habitat created in high-quality overwash was inversely related to the level of development on study areas, from 17% of all new habitat in overwash at one of the most densely developed sites to 80% of all new habitat at an undeveloped site. We also show that piping plovers exploited new habitat after the storm, with 14-57% of all nests located in newly created habitat in the 2013 breeding season. Our results quantify the importance of storms in creating and maintaining coastal habitats for beach-nesting species like piping plovers, and these results suggest a negative correlation between human development and beneficial ecological impacts of these natural disturbances.