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Land-based sediment sources and transport to southwest Puerto Rico coral reefs after Hurricane Maria, May 2017 to June 2018

June 18, 2021

The effects of runoff from land on nearshore ecosystems, including coral reef communities, are influenced by both sediment supply and removal by coastal processes. Integrated studies across the land-sea interface describing sources and transport of terrestrial sediment and its nearshore fate allow reef protection initiatives to target key onshore and offshore areas. Geochemical signatures in the fine fraction of terrestrial sediment from watersheds in southwest Puerto Rico were determined by multivariate principal component analysis and used to identify terrestrial sources of sediment runoff to nearshore coral reefs. Sediment settling out of suspension at reefs was collected at approximately 2 month-long intervals in bottom-mounted sediment traps from May 2017 to June 2018, a period that included Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Bulk sediment accumulation rates in traps exceeded a 10 mg/cm2/d threshold found to stress corals at 5 of 7 reef sites throughout the 13 month-long study. Geochemical signatures showed that watersheds 10s km to the east were a predominant, year-round source of fine sediment to reefs offshore of Guánica Bay and could have introduced sediment-bound contaminants due to a higher degree of industrialization and urbanization than the local watershed. Sediment runoff from the local watershed appeared to be constrained to a narrow band close to shore. During the 2.5 months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, bulk sediment accumulation rates increased substantially and fine sediment geochemical signatures were indicative of predominantly distal sources, except outside of the mouth of Guánica Bay, which was strongly impacted by local runoff. Mass wasting, sediment runoff, and coastal turbidity persisted for months after Hurricane Maria and could account for the appearance of a small fraction of geochemical variance from a distal sediment source that appeared in reef traps 4 months post-hurricane and persisted through the end of the study 9 months post-hurricane. Sediment geochemical sourcing in temporally resolved records from sediment traps showed how landscape-scale changes after a major hurricane affected both near-term and long-term sediment delivery to reef communities. In addition, the importance of fine sediment advection from distal sources indicates that successful reduction of land-based pressures on nearshore ecosystems will require cross-jurisdictional strategies.