The Atlantic Coast A Natural History

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2012-03-27
  • Publisher: Greystone Books
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An authoritative and fascinating exploration of the natural history of the east coast of North America. The North Atlantic coast of North America -- commonly known as the Atlantic Coast -- extends from Newfoundland and Labrador through the Maritime Provinces and the Northeastern United States south to Cape Hatteras. This North Atlantic region belongs to the sea. The maritime influence on climate, flora, and fauna is dominant -- even far inland. This is where the great northern boreal forests intermingle with the mixed coniferous-hardwood forests farther south and where the cold, iceberg-studded Labrador Current from the Arctic and the warm Gulf Stream of the tropics vie for supremacy. Filled with stunning photographs, the book includes chapters on the geological origins of this region, the two major forest realms, and the main freshwater and marine ecosystems and also describes the flora and fauna within each of these habitats. Finally, it looks at what has been lost but also what remains of the natural heritage of the region and how that might be conserved in future. Written by the Atlantic region's best-known nature writer, Harry Thurston, The Atlantic Coastdraws upon the most up-to-date science on the ecology of the region as well as the author's lifetime experience as a biologist and naturalist. It is both a personal tribute and an accessible, comprehensive guide to an intriguing ecosystem.

Author Biography

Harry Thurston is the author of several collections of poetry and twelve nonfiction books, including A Place Between the Tides: A Naturalist’s Reflections on the Salt Marsh, which received the 2005 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. He has also written for such magazines as Audubon and National Geographic. Thurston lives in Nova Scotia. Wayne Barrett is a partner in Barrett & MacKay Photography. His photographs have been featured in advertisements, magazines, and calendars and have appeared in numerous books. He lives in Prince Edward Island.

Table of Contents

Preface 1

1 The Atlantic Realm 7
Where North Meets South

2 Oceans and Mountains 39
The Geology and Paleontology of the Atlantic Coast

3 The Atlantic Hinterland 77
Forests of the Atlantic Coast

4 Between the Capes 117
The Mid-Atlantic Bight

5 Tides of Life 153
The Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy

6 River into the Sea 199
The Gulf of St. Lawrence

7 Great Currents and Grand Banks 235
Newfoundland and Labrador

8 The Altered Realm 277
The Once and Future Atlantic

Photographer’s Acknowledgments 304

Further Reading 305

Scientific Names 311

Index 36

Panel of expert reviewers:
Dr. Graham Daborn
Acadia Centre for Estuarine Research
Acadia University,
Wolfville, Nova Scotia

Dr. David Garbary
Professor of Biology and Co-ordinator--Interdisciplinary Studies in Aquatic Resources
St. Francis Xavier University
Antigonish, Nova Scotia

Brian Harrington, Senior Shorebird Biologist
Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences
Manomet, Massachusetts

Dr. Peter Larsen
Senior Research Scientist
Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences
West Boothbay Harbor, Maine

Dr. Donald F. McAlpine
Chair, Department of Natural Science
Head, Zoology Section
New Brunswick Museum Saint John, N.B.

Dr. Paul E. Olsen
Arthur D. Storke Memorial Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University
Palisades, New York

Dr. George Rose
Head, Fisheries Conservation,
Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland,
St. John's, Newfoundland

Dr. Boris Worm
Assistant Professor
& Head, The Worm Lab for Marine Conservation,
Department of Biology
Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia


Excerpt (from Chapter 1):Fog seemed like a constant companion when I was growing up. My earliest memories are wrapped in it as if in a comforting blanket. I grew up in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, at the very southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, that peninsular province that points into the Gulf of Maine and is all but surrounded by water. Yarmouth averages 120 foggy days a year, and the fog produced here in prodigious quantities by the interaction of land, sea, and air is often of the "pea soup" variety. When summer air, warmed by the land, flows out over the tidally generated colder waters of the outer Bay of Fundy, its moisture condenses, producing a fog bank. This fog would often burn off by midmorning, under the heat of the rising sun, but move in again when sea breezes blew onto the land in the evening. Companion to some, curse to others, to me the fog is the sea's breath, a reminder of the closeness of the sea and its influence on all life in the Atlantic realm. [PHOTO 1-1, Fog over Fundy National Park]The Northwest Atlantic region of North America-the Northeastern United States and Newfoundland and Labrador and the Maritime Provinces in Canada-belongs to the sea. The maritime influence on climate, and therefore on flora and fauna, is dominant-even far inland, out of sight and sound of the ocean, and even though weather systems generally move easterly off the continent. In summer the prevailing wind is from the southwest and, in winter, from the northwest, though occasionally strong cyclonic storms-the famous "nor'easters" that blow in off the Atlantic-blast the coast. The continental weather systems would normally make the winters long and cold and the summers very hot, but the ocean moderates these extremes. It is slow to heat up but once warmed maintains its heat longer than the land, with consequences for the duration and intensity of the seasons. The relative warmth of the ocean causes warmer weather to linger in the autumn-the so-called Indian summer-and makes the winter less severe than it is inland. In spring, however, the ocean has the opposite effect. While the land heats up more quickly, the cooler ocean causes the spring to be delayed and summer near the coast to be cooler and shorter than it is farther inland.This maritime influence is greater in the coastal areas most exposed to the open ocean, such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, than in the more protected areas like the Gulf of Maine and Gulf of St. Lawrence. The latter, however, freezes over in winter, while in summer, the shallow coastal area around eastern New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island boasts the warmest waters north of the Carolinas. Farther north, landfast ice clings to the Labrador coast from December until at least April, and icebergs, born in Greenland, drift into Newfoundland waters late into the summer before succumbing to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream off the Tail of the Grand Banks. [PHOTO 1-2 (#138), Thatcher Island Light, Cape Anne, Mass.]***Cross CurrentsIn its grand sweep, the Northwest Atlantic coast extends from the northern tip of Labrador, at Cape Chidley, where a treeless tundra prevails and polar bears and walrus haunt the coast, to Cape Hatteras, where the tropically warmed waters of the Gulf Stream brush the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The predominant oceanographic influence on this vast coastal region is the Labrador Current, colorfully described by the Newfoundland artist Christopher Pratt as "a relentless flood of molten ice, the bloodstream of our near sub-Arctic climate." The Labrador Current is created when cold waters from Hudson Bay and the Davis Strait converge off Cape Chidley and flow southward along the Labrador coast. It consists of two branches, a warmer, saltier offshore branch, which forms a counterclockwise gyre in the Labrador Sea, and a fresher, colder inshore branch, which wraps Newfoundland in an icy embrace. [MAP 1-1]This inshore branch itself bifurcates, one arm turning into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the main flow continuing southward and westward. It is joined by the great flush of water that originates in the Great Lakes and flows out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Cabot Strait, where it hugs the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia as the Nova Scotia Current. This cool, relatively freshwater mass skirts the eastern half of the coast before it abruptly branches offshore near Halifax, flowing out to the edge of the Scotian Shelf, offshore of Nova Scotia. But a cold offshoot of the Labrador Current ultimately enters the Gulf of Maine through the Northeast Channel-cooling the waters as far south as Cape Cod. [PHOTO 1-3 (Ch. 8, #3), Polar bear and cubs]The Gulf Stream, a warm, salty 100-kilometer-wide (60 miles) river in the sea, acts as a foil to the Labrador Current's chilling effect. Born in the Gulf of Mexico of the Guyana Current and the North Equatorial Current, the Gulf Stream flows like a warm water jet out through the Florida Straits and follows the coastline until it begins to veer away north of Cape Hatteras, swirling and becoming more turbulent as it heads into the open ocean. Its influence continues to be felt in the Mid-Atlantic region and farther north, however, as pinched-off eddies called warm-core rings drift slowly westward, bringing Gulf Stream waters close to the edge of the continental shelf in the Gulf of Maine and along the Scotian Shelf.Ecologically, the divide along this grand sweep of coast, from roughly the 60th to the 35th parallel, is Cape Cod. The cape projects into the North Atlantic like a police officer's arm directing marine traffic. South of it, waters are too warm to permanently accommodate animals native to the boreal Acadian zone in the north. North of the cape, cooler waters act as a barrier to animals endemic to the mid-Atlantic region (the so-called Virginian zone) in the south. This separation of northern and southern species is a consequence of water temperature, which on average is several degrees colder-thanks to the Labrador Current-on the north shore of the cape than on the southern shore. The landforms north and south of the Cape also differ, largely as a result of the difference in the glacial history of the region. In the north, where the Wisconsinan glacier scraped its way across the landscape like a giant bulldozer blade, the contemporary coastline still bears its scars; it is deeply indented, consisting of rocky beaches and cliffs where softer sediments have been largely removed. South of the cape, in the mid-Atlantic region, where the glacier never reached, a low-lying, mostly linear coastal plain prevails, consisting of sediments eroded from the Appalachian Mountains and then molded by the ocean's tides, currents, and storms into sandy beaches, barrier islands, and coastal lagoons.Far from shore, at the Tail of Newfoundland's Grand Bank, the cold, iceberg-studded Labrador Current, swinging down from the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and the warm Gulf Stream, curving up from the tropics, vie for supremacy. The first chronicler of New France, Marc Lescarbot, observed this strange conjunction on his first voyage to the New World, in 1606:###I discovered something remarkable that a philosopher of nature should wonder about. On 18 June 1606 at 45 degrees latitude and at a distance of one hundred and twenty leagues to the east of the banks of Newfoundland, we found ourselves surrounded by very warm water, although the air was cold. Yet on 21 June we were suddenly caught in such a fog that one would have thought oneself to be in January, and the sea was extremely cold.###Lescarbot was witness to the clash of the titans, whereby both of these powerful currents are deflected: the Gulf Stream to the northeast, where as the North Atlantic Current it warms northern Europe; the Labrador Current to the southwest, where it cools the North American coast. While robbing the Northwest Atlantic of a more equable climate, the Labrador Current has bestowed benefits to both wildlife and society. These cold, plankton-rich waters are the foundation of the legendary productivity of Newfoundland's Grand Bank and its more southerly counterpart, Georges Bank, in the Gulf of Maine, two of the richest fishing regions in the world.***Diverse WatersThe Northwest Atlantic-the subject of this book-is not a homogenous body of water, which is hardly surprising given its size and reach. As we have already seen, in the southernmost region, the warm Gulf Stream exerts a moderating influence, while in the north the cold Labrador Current is dominant. Moving from north to south, we encounter water masses that are dramatically different, from very cold, sub-Arctic waters along the Labrador coast to the Strait of Belle Isle, to the cold-temperate waters of the Canadian Maritime Provinces and northern New England, and, finally, to the warmer, temperate waters of the Mid-Atlantic region, between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras. As a whole, the Northwest Atlantic comprises an ecozone, which is the largest biogeographic unit. South of Cape Hatteras, we enter the Wider Caribbean ecozone-an ocean of warm waters and warm-water species in sharp contrast to the cool waters and cold-water species of the Northwest Atlantic ecozone.The diverse marine and terrestrial environments within the Northwest Atlantic can best be understood by adopting an ecoregional approach. A useful, if sometimes flexible, concept, an ecoregion is a large, geographically distinct area of land or water sharing a large majority of species and environmental conditions that interact in ways that lead to its persistence over long periods of time. It is smaller than an ecozone and larger than an ecosystem. The ecosystem is the basic unit of nature and itself varies in scale. A lake, a forest, and a bog are examples of ecosystems, though a larger geographic unit encompassing all of them might also be considered an ecosystem. Within an ecosystem living organisms and their environment are inseparable, with a constant exchange of energy and matter, in the form of food, nutrients, water, and waste, occurring between its living and nonliving parts.Differences in marine environments are more difficult to determine than differences in terrestrial environments, but oceanographic factors, such as currents, tides, water temperature, and salinity, set them apart and, critically, define the nature not only of the marine life found there but of life along the coast and on land due to the far-reaching, ever-present influence of the ocean. The types and numbers of organisms are also useful criteria in drawing boundaries.Using these criteria, the Northwest Atlantic can be divided into five ecoregions. The Mid-Atlantic Bight, between Cape Hatteras and the south shore of Cape Cod, is a marine region guarded by a bastion of barrier islands and penetrated by large estuaries such as the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. The Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy together form a single oceanographic unit that stretches north from Cape Cod along the low, rocky, irregular coast of Maine to the expansive salt marshes and mudflats at the head of the Bay of Fundy. The Scotian Shelf lies off the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, where the long reach of the ocean curls ashore onto beaches of white sand. Near the shore, rising sea level has also created a cordon of islands-nearly four thousand in total-and far offshore, the edge of the continental shelf is penetrated by steep-sided submarine canyons. At the heart of North Atlantic coast lies the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a sea within a sea with a shoreline of great topographical contrasts. The north shore of the gulf presents an "ironbound" aspect of Canadian Shield rocks-a place reviled by its first European explorer, Jacques Cartier, as "the land God gave to Cain"-while the southern portion is carved from softer sandstone, creating a welcoming shoreline of wide beaches, barrier islands, coastal dunes, and spits. And finally, in the far north, we come to the dramatic headlands and cliffs of Newfoundland-"The Rock" to its proud inhabitants-and to the forbidding and majestic coastline of Labrador and its iceberg-studded sea. Offshore are the famous Grand Banks, once the greatest cod-producing region on the planet.Given its size and complexity, it is hardly surprising that the Atlantic is a region of great biological diversity. Offshore, productivity peaks on the shallow fishing banks, where life-giving light penetrates the water column and nutrients are near the surface. The combination of light and nutrients fuels the growth of phytoplankton, the single-celled plants that are the foundation of the marine food web. In turn, the phytoplankton feed the zooplankton, the animal constituent of marine plankton, which includes small, shrimplike crustaceans and fish larvae. At the edge of the continental shelf, where waters plunge into the abyssal depths, oceanic fronts concentrate an abundance of zooplankton, which in turn attracts fishes, seabirds, and cetaceans. Inshore, waterfowl and shorebirds exploit the mosaic of mudflats, salt marshes, and rocky shores for their riches. The many islands and towering cliffs that guard the deeply indented northern coastline provide safe nesting grounds for seabird nations, while the barrier islands and lagoons in the south harbor breeding and overwintering populations of shorebirds, waterfowl, and waders. Anadromous species such as Atlantic salmon, alewives, smelt, and American shad run up its rivers, great and small, to spawn, connecting the sea to the hinterland behind the coast.Located roughly midway between the Equator and the North Pole, the coastline of Atlantic Canada in particular serves as a way station for many migratory birds: for neotropical land birds making their way to their boreal forest breeding grounds in spring and on their return in late summer, for shorebirds migrating between their Arctic nesting grounds and the southern hemisphere, for southern seabirds escaping the austral winter, and for waterfowl moving north and south with the changing seasons in search of open water and food. [PHOTO 1-4 (#152), Shorebirds, Pleasant Bay, Cape Breton]The waters and shoreline habitats of the northwest Atlantic are critical to the survival of a number of species. Delaware Bay is a vital staging area for the rufa species of red knots, which fly from Patagonia in spring to banquet on the eggs laid by an armada of horseshoe crabs that come ashore around the full moon in May, in a wondrous example of the alacrity and fecundity of nature. The outer Bay of Fundy is a critical nursery area for the world's most endangered great whale, the North Atlantic right whale-perhaps only saved from the rapacious whalers of the 19th century by the bay's frequent fogs and treacherous tide-rips. At the other end of the bay, vast mudflats are the feeding grounds for three-quarters of the world population of semipalmated sandpipers before they embark on a three-day, nonstop journey over open water to their South American wintering grounds. The estuary of the great St. Lawrence River, coursing out of the interior of the continent, supports the white-winged migration of greater snow geese and the most southerly population of the endangered white whale, the beluga.But few places, if any, can match the bounteous waters of Newfoundland and Labrador, once home to the greatest feedstock of fish-the Atlantic cod-in the history of human civilization. And despite the modern-day tragedy of the collapse of the northern cod stocks from overfishing, these waters continue to feed a United Nations of seabirds-some 6 million pairs that breed on the islands and cliffs of Newfoundland and Labrador-and 50 million more that congregate offshore during the nonbreeding season.***

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