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Volume 29 Issue 6 (June 2019)

GSA Today

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Article, pp. 4-10 | Full Text | PDF (3MB)

Landslides Triggered by Hurricane Maria: Assessment of an Extreme Event in Puerto Rico

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Erin K. Bessette-Kirton

U.S. Geological Survey, Denver Federal Center, Box 25046, MS 966, Denver, Colorado 80225, USA

Corina Cerovski-Darriau

U.S. Geological Survey, 345 Middlefield Road, MS 910, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

William H. Schulz, Jeffrey A. Coe, Jason W. Kean, Jonathan W. Godt, Matthew A. Thomas

U.S. Geological Survey, Denver Federal Center, Box 25046, MS 966, Denver, Colorado 80225, USA

K. Stephen Hughes

Dept. of Geology, University of Puerto Rico, Call Box 9000, MayagŁez, Puerto Rico 00681, USA


Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017 and triggered more than 40,000 landslides in at least three-fourths of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities. The number of landslides that occurred during this event was two orders of magnitude greater than those reported from previous hurricanes. Landslide source areas were commonly limited to surficial soils but also extended into underlying saprolite and bedrock. Slope failures occurred before, during, and after flooding, and many transitioned into long runout debris flows. Steep slopes in hilly and mountainous regions were particularly impacted by landslides due to antecedent soil moisture levels that were 11%–13% higher than average and rainfall totals of at least 250 mm within a 48 h period. High landslide densities were especially widespread across some geologic formations (e.g., granodiorite of the Utuado batholith); however, bedrock geology alone did not determine the location and distribution of landslides caused by Hurricane Maria. While rainfall data collected during Hurricane Maria were inconsistent, satellite-based soil moisture data were correlated with the distribution of landslides. In the future, the use of soil moisture data could enable assessments of regional landslide susceptibility prior to hurricanes or extreme precipitation events.

Manuscript received 28 Aug. 2018. Revised manuscript received 20 Dec. 2018. Manuscript accepted 5 Jan. 2019. Posted 6 Feb. 2019.

© The Geological Society of America, 2019. CC-BY-NC.