Research ArticleEARTH SCIENCES

Tracking the weight of Hurricane Harvey’s stormwater using GPS data

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Science Advances  19 Sep 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 9, eaau2477
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau2477


On 26 August 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast as a category four cyclone depositing ~95 km3 of water, making it the wettest cyclone in U.S. history. Water left in Harvey’s wake should cause elastic loading and subsidence of Earth’s crust, and uplift as it drains into the ocean and evaporates. To track daily changes of transient water storage, we use Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements, finding a clear migration of subsidence (up to 21 mm) and horizontal motion (up to 4 mm) across the Gulf Coast, followed by gradual uplift over a 5-week period. Inversion of these data shows that a third of Harvey’s total stormwater was captured on land (25.7 ± 3.0 km3), indicating that the rest drained rapidly into the ocean at a rate of 8.2 km3/day, with the remaining stored water gradually lost over the following 5 weeks at ~1 km3/day, primarily by evapotranspiration. These results indicate that GPS networks can remotely track the spatial extent and daily evolution of terrestrial water storage following transient, extreme precipitation events, with implications for improving operational flood forecasts and understanding the response of drainage systems to large influxes of water.

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