Impact of Hurricane Irma on coral reef sediment redistribution at Looe Key Reef, Florida, USA

Ocean Science
By: , and 



Understanding event-driven sediment transport in coral reef environments is essential to assessing impacts on reef species, habitats, restoration, and mitigation, yet a global knowledge gap remains due to limited quantitative studies. Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Lower Florida Keys with sustained 209 km h−1 winds and waves greater than 8 m on 10 September 2017, directly impacting the Florida Reef Tract (FRT) and providing an opportunity to perform a unique comprehensive, quantitative assessment of its impact on coral reef structure and sediment redistribution. We used lidar and multibeam derived digital elevation models (DEMs) collected before and after the passing of Hurricane Irma over a 15.98 km2 area along the lower FRT including Looe Key Reef to quantify changes in seafloor elevation, volume, and structure due to storm impacts. Elevation change was calculated at over 4 million point locations across 10 habitat types within this study area for two time periods using data collected (1) approximately 1 year before the passing of Irma and 3 to 6 months following the storm's impact as well as (2) 3 to 6 months after and up to 16.5 months after the storm. Elevation change data were then used to generate triangulated irregular network (TIN) models in ArcMap to calculate changes in seafloor volume during each time period. Our results indicate that Hurricane Irma was primarily a depositional event that increased mean seafloor elevation and volume at this study site by 0.34 m and up to 5.4 Mm3, respectively. Sediment was transported primarily west-southwest (WSW) and downslope, modifying geomorphic seafloor features including the migration of sand waves and rubble fields, formation of scour marks in shallow seagrass habitats, and burial of seagrass and coral-dominated habitats. Approximately 16.5 months after Hurricane Irma (during a 13-month period between 2017 and 2019), net erosion was observed across all habitats with mean elevation change of −0.15 m and net volume change up to −2.46 Mm3. Rates of elevation change during this post-storm period were 1 to 2 orders of magnitude greater than decadal and multi-decadal rates of change in the same location, and changes showed erosion of approximately 50 % of sediment deposited during the storm event as seafloor sediment distribution began to re-equilibrate to non-storm sea-state conditions. Our results suggest that higher-resolution elevation change data collected over seasonal and annual time periods could enhance characterization and understanding of short-term and long-term rates and processes of seafloor change.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Impact of Hurricane Irma on coral reef sediment redistribution at Looe Key Reef, Florida, USA
Series title Ocean Science
DOI 10.5194/os-20-661-2024
Volume 20
Issue 3
Year Published 2024
Language English
Publisher Copernicus
Contributing office(s) St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center
Description 28 p.
First page 661
Last page 688
Country United States
State Florida
Other Geospatial Looe Key Reef
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