Hillslopes in humid-tropical climates aren’t always wet: Implications for hydrologic response and landslide initiation in Puerto Rico, USA

Hydrological Processes
By: , and 



The devastating impacts of the widespread flooding and landsliding in Puerto Rico following the September 2017 landfall of Hurricane Maria highlight the increasingly extreme atmospheric disturbances and enhanced hazard potential in mountainous humid‐tropical climate zones. Long‐standing conceptual models for hydrologically driven hazards in Puerto Rico posit that hillslope soils remain wet throughout the year, and therefore, that antecedent soil wetness imposes a negligible effect on hazard potential. Our post‐Maria in situ hillslope hydrologic observations, however, indicate that while some slopes remain wet throughout the year, others exhibit appreciable seasonal and intra‐storm subsurface drainage. Therefore, we evaluated the performance of hydro‐meteorological (soil wetness and rainfall) versus intensity‐duration (rainfall only) hillslope hydrologic response thresholds that identify the onset of positive pore‐water pressure, a predisposing factor for widespread slope instability in this region. Our analyses also consider the role of soil‐water storage and infiltration rates on runoff generation, which are relevant factors for flooding hazards. We found that the hydro‐meteorological thresholds outperformed intensity‐duration thresholds for a seasonally wet, coarse‐grained soil, although they did not outperform intensity‐duration thresholds for a perennially wet, fine‐grained soil. These end‐member soils types may also produce radically different stormflow responses, with subsurface flow being more common for the coarse‐grained soils underlain by intrusive rocks versus infiltration excess and/or saturation excess for the fine‐grained soils underlain by volcaniclastic rocks. We conclude that variability in soil‐hydraulic properties, as opposed to climate zone, is the dominant factor that controls runoff generation mechanisms and modulates the relative importance of antecedent soil wetness for our hillslope hydrologic response thresholds.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Hillslopes in humid-tropical climates aren’t always wet: Implications for hydrologic response and landslide initiation in Puerto Rico, USA
Series title Hydrological Processes
DOI 10.1002/hyp.13885
Volume 34
Issue 22
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Geologic Hazards Science Center
Description Article: 12 p.; Data Release
First page 4307
Last page 4318
Country United States
State Puerto Rico
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