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Hillslopes in Humid-tropical Climates Aren’t Always Wet: Implications for Hydrologic Response and Landslide Initiation in Puerto Rico
  • Matthew Thomas,
  • Benjamin Mirus,
  • Joel Smith
Matthew Thomas
USGS Geologic Hazards Science Center

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Benjamin Mirus
USGS Geologic Hazards Science Center
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Joel Smith
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
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The devastating impacts of the widespread flooding and landsliding in Puerto Rico following the September 2017 landfall of Hurricane Maria highlight the enhanced hazard potential from increasingly extreme storms 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 antecedent soil wetness imposes a negligible effect on hazard potential. Our post-Maria in situ hillslope hydrologic observations indicate that while some slopes remain wet throughout the year, others exhibit appreciable seasonal and intra-storm subsurface drainage. Therefore, we used receiver-operating characteristic analysis and the Threat Score (TS) skill statistic to evaluate 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. We found that the hydro-meteorological thresholds outperformed intensity-duration thresholds for a seasonally wet, coarse-grained soil (TS = 0.8 vs. 0.6, respectively), although they did not outperform intensity-duration thresholds for a perennially wet, fine-grained soil (TS = 0.2 vs. 0.2, respectively). These 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 the humid-tropical climate zone, is the dominant factor that controls runoff generation and modulates the importance of antecedent soil wetness for our hillslope hydrologic response thresholds. Our findings encourage further deployment of continuous in situ hydrologic monitoring to facilitate the development of empirical hillslope hydrologic response and landslide thresholds for regional-scale hazard warning systems that must account for spatially variable soil types.