Hurricane impacts on a pair of coastal forested watersheds: implications of selective hurricane damage to forest structure and streamflow dynamics
Hurricanes are infrequent but influential disruptors of ecosystem processes in the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Every southeastern forested wetland has the potential to be struck by a tropical cyclone. We examined the impact of Hurricane Hugo on two paired coastal South Carolina watersheds in terms of streamflow and vegetation dynamics, both before and after the hurricane's passage in 1989. The study objectives were to quantify the magnitude and timing of changes including a reversal in relative streamflow difference between two paired watersheds, and to examine the selective impacts of a hurricane on the vegetative composition of the forest. We related these impacts to their potential contribution to change watershed hydrology through altered evapotranspiration processes. Using over 30 years of monthly rainfall and streamflow data we showed that there was a significant transformation in the hydrologic character of the two watersheds – a transformation that occurred soon after the hurricane's passage. We linked the change in the rainfall–runoff relationship to a catastrophic change in forest vegetation due to selective hurricane damage. While both watersheds were located in the path of the hurricane, extant forest structure varied between the two watersheds as a function of experimental forest management techniques on the treatment watershed. We showed that the primary damage was to older pines, and to some extent larger hardwood trees. We believe that lowered vegetative water use impacted both watersheds with increased outflows on both watersheds due to loss of trees following hurricane impact. However, one watershed was able to recover to pre hurricane levels of evapotranspiration at a quicker rate due to the greater abundance of pine seedlings and saplings in that watershed.