A Severe Hurricane Increases Carbon Dioxide and Methane Fluxes and Triples Nitrous Oxide Emissions in a Tropical Forest

Tropical cyclones (for example, hurricanes, typhoons) are expected to intensify under a warming climate, with uncertain effects on tropical forests. These ecosystems contribute disproportionately to greenhouse gas (GHG; carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)) fluxes globally but there is high uncertainty in how these fluxes will respond to the projected increase in the frequency of severe tropical cyclones. To examine how these natural disturbance events may alter ecosystem processes in tropical forests, we studied the effects of Hurricane María (2017), a category 4 storm, on soil GHG fluxes from a forest in Puerto Rico. We also asked how environmental conditions, namely severity of tree canopy damage and topographic position, influenced spatial heterogeneity in post-hurricane soil GHG emissions. Seven months after Hurricane María, we observed an 18% increase in soil CO2 fluxes, a switch in CH4 fluxes from net consumption toward net production, and a threefold increase in N2O emissions relative to pre-hurricane fluxes. None of these fluxes were sensitive to topographic heterogeneity or the magnitude of tree canopy damage, in contrast to the marked soil GHG flux sensitivity to topography prior to the storm. Upscaling the increase in soil N2O emissions to the ecosystem level shows that greater emissions of soil N2O following hurricanes also led to high rates of nitrogen loss that, if sustained over a year, would be equivalent to 30% of estimated losses of inorganic nitrogen to runoff and groundwater. Additionally, the combined hurricane-induced increases in soil GHGs suggest a 25% increase in the contribution of soil GHG emissions from this forest to global warming, an effect that can persist for several months after the storm. Taken together, our results show that hurricane disturbance in coastal tropical forests can, at least temporarily, shift the radiative forcing of soils in these forests, exacerbating climate change.

Andrew W. Quebbeman, Duncan N.L. Menge, Gabriel Arellano, Jazlynn Hall, Tana E. Wood, Jess K. Zimmerman, and María Uriarte