Phillips C.B.

Reduced channel morphological response to urbanization in a flood-dominated humid tropical environment

Phillips C.B., Scatena F.N. Reduced channel morphological response to urbanization in a flood-dominated humid tropical environment. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms. 2012. DOI: 10.1002/esp.3345

Urbanization through the addition of impervious cover can alter catchment hydrology, often resulting in increased peak flows during floods. This phenomenon and the resulting impact on stream channel morphology is well documented in temperate climatic regions, but not well documented in the humid tropics where urbanization is rapidly occurring. This study investigates the long-term effects of urbanization on channel morphology in the humid sub-tropical region of Puerto Rico, an area characterized by frequent high-magnitude flows, and steep coarse-grained rivers. Grain size, low-flow channel roughness, and the hydraulic geometry of streams across a land-use gradient that ranges from pristine forest to high density urbanized catchments are compared. In areas that have been urbanized for several decades changes in channel features were measurable, but were smaller than those reported for comparable temperate streams. Decades of development has resulted in increased fine sediment and anthropogenic debris in urbanized catchments. Materials of anthropogenic origin comprise an average of 6% of the bed material in streams with catchments with 15% or greater impervious cover. At-a-station hydraulic geometry shows that velocity makes up a larger component of discharge for rural channels, while depth contributes a larger component of discharge in urban catchments. The average bank-full cross-sectional area of urbanized reaches was 1.5 times larger than comparable forested reaches, and less than the world average increase of 2.5. On average, stream width at bank-full height did not change with urbanization while the world average increase is 1.5 times. Overall, this study indicates that the morphologic changes that occur in response to urban runoff are less in channels that are already subject to frequent large magnitude storms. Furthermore, this study suggests that developing regions in the humid tropics shouldn’t rely on temperate analogues to determine the magnitude of impact of urbanization on stream morphology. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


Urbanization and increases in impervious area are known to increase stream runoff and flashiness and several indices have been developed to quantify flashiness in temperate streams. The effectiveness of these indices in the humid tropics and how urbanization influences the flashiness of tropical streams that are known for their inherent flashiness is poorly understood and documented. This study compares two existing flashiness indices and a new approach that quantifies flashiness by the average time between large events on 13 urban to forested streams in Northeastern Puerto Rico. The average time between events of specific magnitudes, the Richards-Baker Flashiness index, and a Frequency of Stage Change approach were calculated and compared using average daily, hourly, and 15 minute discharge data. All analysis was based on USGS discharge records for the same 10 year period, 2000 through 2009. The results indicate that when flashiness is based on average daily stream flow, there was little to no discernible difference in the flashiness of the urban and forested streams. This results because average daily discharge records miss or underestimates the magnitude, duration, and the frequency of most events. When comparing the time between events of a given magnitude using hourly or 15 minute discharge series, the urban drainages have a shorter time period between peaks of a given magnitude than rural drainages. The Frequency of Stage Change approach also indicates that high density urban drainages are flashier than drainages with forested or mixed land use. For the average days and the stage frequency change method, flashiness indices based on hourly time series are similar to those based on the 15 minute series. The analysis indicates that tropical urban streams are flashier than their rural counterparts; however the difference is less than has been reported in temperate studies and is only statistically apparent when using high resolution discharge records.
Syndicate content