The geomorphic significance of hurricanes on coral-fringed calcium carbonate coastlines: Hurricane Wilma 15-25 October 2005, northeastern Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Hurricanes and tropical storms can cause large scale morphological changes to barrier beach systems in tropical environments. Many such systems are fronted by coral reefs; however, unlike siliciclastic barrier beaches, little is known about the significance of hurricanes to barrier beach evolution on coral-fringed calcium carbonate coastlines. This study provides a detailed assessment of the impacts of Hurricane Wilma, a major hurricane, on the reef-protected and exposed barrier beaches of northeastern Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The study considers both the short (0-8 months) and medium term (8-56 months) response, and postulates the significance of major storm events over the longer term. Hurricane Wilma made landfall in late October 2005 as a Category 4 hurricane, bringing sustained wind speeds of 67 ms-1, and storm waves with significant wave heights (HS) ≈ 13 m. The storm persisted for over 20 hours, while storm waves inundated the low lying barrier beaches and rainfall flooded inland wetlands and lagoons. To determine the impacts of Hurricane Wilma and quantify post-storm recovery of reef-protected and unprotected barrier beaches, geomorphic mapping and post-storm surveying (2006 and 2010) was completed at 49 locations between Punta Nizuc and Punta Maroma. In addition, 220 sediment samples were collected from across barrier beaches and the backreef lagoon for textural and petrographic analysis. Satellite imagery was also used to quantify immediate storm impacts and recovery of the shoreline. Barrier beaches were found to have responded to storm waves in two broadly different ways: reef-protected beaches accreted by between 2.1 and 24.6 m, as the beach and foredunes were reworked. In contrast, unprotected beaches underwent erosion of over 10 m. By 2006, reef-protected beaches had undergone rapid shoreface and beachface adjustment. Over the next four years, these beaches gradually transgressed landwards and aggraded subaerially as they readjusted to their pre-storm equilibrium beach profile. Exposed beaches responded much more rapidly than those protected by reefs, with shoreline adjustment occurring within eight months of the storm. Subaerial beach development was, however, much slower, requiring extended calm conditions to infill the eroded beach. The storm and post storm geomorphic responses were found to be highly variable alongshore, and influenced by several factors, including dune height, beach width, and wave exposure. The results indicate that under the contemporary climatic conditions hurricanes are key drivers of barrier beach evolution over the short (0-8 months) to medium terms (8-56 months), but are not so influential over longer time scales. However, an expected increase in the number of major storms (category 3-5) in the future may increase the significance of hurricanes to longer term barrier evolution, with the storm impacts likely to be greater and the recovery times longer. Understanding these responses is particularly critical as many areas continue to be developed, and as the coral reef protecting the coastline becomes threatened by the implications of climatic change.