2023 journal article
Recent increases of rainfall and flooding from tropical cyclones (TCs) in North Carolina (USA): implications for organic matter and nutrient cycling in coastal watersheds
BIOGEOCHEMISTRY, 164(1), 257–276.
Coastal North Carolina experienced 36 tropical cyclones (TCs), including three floods of historical significance in the past two decades (Hurricanes Floyd-1999, Matthew-2016 and Florence-2018). These events caused catastrophic flooding and major alterations of water quality, fisheries habitat and ecological conditions of the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound (APS), the second largest estuarine complex in the United States. Continuous rainfall records for coastal NC since 1898 reveal a period of unprecedented high precipitation storm events since the late-1990s. Six of seven of the “wettest” storm events in this > 120-year record occurred in the past two decades, identifying a period of elevated precipitation and flooding associated with recent TCs. We examined storm-related freshwater discharge, carbon (C) and nutrient, i.e., nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) loadings, and evaluated contributions to total annual inputs in the Neuse River Estuary (NRE), a major sub-estuary of the APS. These contributions were highly significant, accounting for > 50% of annual loads depending on antecedent conditions and storm-related flooding. Depending on the magnitude of freshwater discharge, the NRE either acted as a “processor” to partially assimilate and metabolize the loads or acted as a “pipeline” to transport the loads to the APS and coastal Atlantic Ocean. Under base-flow, terrestrial sources dominate riverine carbon. During storm events these carbon sources are enhanced through the inundation and release of carbon from wetlands. These findings show that event-scale discharge plays an important and, at times, predominant role in C, N and P loadings. We appear to have entered a new climatic regime characterized by more frequent extreme precipitation events, with major ramifications for hydrology, cycling of C, N and P, water quality and habitat conditions in estuarine and coastal waters.