Hurricanes, Storm Surge, and Pine Forest Decline on a Low Limestone Island

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Hurricanes are a frequent disturbance in the western Atlantic impacting coastal forest structure and persistence. This study addressed the hypothesis that periodic hurricane-associated winds and storm surges can interact with sea-level rise to cause the demise of coastal pine forests, based on the response of the Florida Keys’ last extensive tract of slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa) following Hurricane Irma (September 2017). Irma’s winds reached Category 4 strength in the study area on Big Pine Key, and storm surge flooded the island’s low limestone surface with salt water for the third time in 20 years, including Hurricanes Georges in 1998 and Wilma in 2005. Total mortality was 32% and was concentrated in the largest trees. Broken and uprooted trees that died immediately were distributed randomly across the elevation gradient, but trees without major stem damage that succumbed later occupied lower elevations. The extensive salt water flooding at low elevations was likely an agent of the mortality of slash pine, a fresh water–dependent species. Mortality due to Hurricane Irma contributed to a 1998–2018 decline in pine tree density and biomass of 74% and 80%, respectively. These dynamics were characterized by pine recruitment that was minimal in comparison with the three hurricane-driven mortality episodes. The data suggest that the 6 cm sea-level rise over the period exacerbated storm surge mortality by ponding salt water over more of the land surface, and the resulting scarcity of mature trees contributed to recruitment failure. In effect, the population declined at each disturbance, sea-level rise magnified these losses, and the local resilience of the population, i.e., its capacity to recover, was exceeded.



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