Impacts of Hurricane Michael on watershed hydrology: A case study in the Southeastern United States
Hurricanes are one of the most significant threats to coastal plain forest ecosystems and urban communities of the southeastern U.S., but their implications for watershed hydrology are unclear. Hurricanes have the potential to alter water balances, causing extensive flooding, biogeochemical cycle disruption, and water quality degradation, saltwater intrusion, and increased nutrient sedimentation export in coastal watersheds. This case study focused on Hurricane Michael, a recent catastrophic event that impacted the Gulf coast, the Florida panhandle, southwestern Georgia, and southeastern Alabama. Through empirical (Double Mass Curve) and process-based ecohydrological modeling (WaSSI model) on long-term streamflow data, we explored whether vegetation damage caused by this hurricane resulted in an increase in streamflow two years after the extreme event. We found that monthly streamflow from the Chipola River watershed with an area of 2023 km2 did not change (<6%) appreciably during the first two years following the storm, arguably because only a fraction of the gauged watershed lost substantial tree cover. However, spatially explicit hydrological modeling suggested that several sub-watersheds with the highest decreases in the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) significantly increased their monthly streamflow in 2019 by up to 22%. These modeled streamflow anomalies subsided by the second growing season when vegetation recovered. Overall, this study suggests that changes in vegetation cover after Hurricane Michael did not have lasting impacts on the hydrology of this watershed, and the hydrology of coastal watersheds may be more resilient to hurricane disturbances than previously thought.