Based on comparative analysis of aerial imagery, the marshes in the Florida Panhandle were overwhelmingly undamaged by Hurricane Michael. Of the 173,259 km2 of marsh analyzed across Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties, only 1.9% (3371 km2) was classified as damaged after Hurricane Michael. Less than 2% of marshes were damaged in Bay and Franklin counties, and less than 5% of marshes were damaged in Gulf County. This result suggests that the majority of marshes in the study counties can withstand the effects of a category 5 hurricane and continue to provide coastal protection ecosystem services29. This also identifies marshes as more resistant than most other coastal defenses, including bulkheads. While this study did not examine bulkhead failure, similar studies found that 76% of bulkheads surveyed in North Carolina were damaged after Hurricane Irene29, and a large portion of bulkheads in the Florida Keys experienced significant damage after Hurricane Irma31,32.
Damage to marshes in the Florida Panhandle from Hurricane Michael was spatially distributed largely due to the storm track. Shortly before making landfall in Mexico Beach, the storm turned northeastward, influenced by the southern edge of mid-latitude westerlies1. The highest hurricane wind speeds are typically associated with the front-right quadrant of the storm and weaken rapidly after landfall, which was also true for Hurricane Michael20. As expected, the majority of damaged marshes (4.3%) were in Gulf County, which is directly southeast of landfall. Given the sizable decrease in wind speed and storm surge as the storm lost intensity over land, about half of the damage (51.6% across all counties) occurred within 50 m of the coast, and the vast majority of damage (95.1% across all counties) occurred within 500 m of the coast.
The types of damage were consistent with hurricane impacts in the Gulf of Mexico, with sediment deposition and wrack deposits among the most common morphological impacts from hurricane strikes21,22. The type of damage was also spatially distributed. Marshes in Bay County experienced the highest wind speeds and also experienced t he most damage from fallen trees, a largely wind-driven form of damage. Marshes in Franklin County experienced the largest inundations, as well as the most conversion to open water. Deposition of sediment or vegetation can be influenced by both wind and inundation, whether through aeolian transport3,4,5,7,8,23 or overwash12. Therefore, it is not surprising that deposition was both the most common as well as the most evenly spatially-distributed form of marsh damage. Vegetation loss, though less common than deposition, is also largely driven by high-velocity wind-driven currents; a particularly intense flow can pluck or denude a marsh of its vegetation24,25.
Marsh damage is also likely closely tied to physical properties of the marsh, in addition to the spatial component of storm conditions. The vast majority (88.5%) of marsh damage occurred at elevations of less than 1 m (NAVD88), consistent with both average marsh elevation and areas of greatest susceptibility to inundation. Localized susceptibility to damage may also indicate differences in marsh soil composition or shear strength24,26 or previous physical disturbance27. Given this study’s reliance on visual observations to determine damage, it is important to consider that not all storm-induced marsh damage can be ascertained visually; subsurface processes such as shallow subsidence or expansion can greatly influence the marsh’s elevation and resilience14,28.
It is also important to consider that, of the ~ 2% of marshes in the Florida Panhandle that were damaged, ~ 80% experienced deposition of sediment or vegetation on the marsh surface, which is a potentially less-permanent form of damage, especially compared to fallen trees or conversion to open water. Hurricanes regularly place thick sediment deposits on marshes in the Gulf of Mexico; short-term sedimentation rates in coastal Louisiana marshes after Hurricane Andrew increased for three months post-storm by 1–3 orders of magnitude compared to pre-storm rates, suggesting that resuspension and deposition continued well beyond the timeframe of the passing storm33. Deposition of sediment from storm overwash may actually benefit the system, increasing total marsh elevation and counteracting sea-level rise8. While storm-induced sedimentation may increase resilience, deposits that are too thick (> 5–10 cm34) may cause plant mortality and ultimately reduce the stability of the marsh and its resilience to storm impacts.
Much of the deposition on the marsh surface was rafted vegetation and wrack mats, which impacts marsh vegetation differently than sediment. This wrack deposition is consistent with past hurricane impacts in the Gulf of Mexico; wrack deposits from Hurricane Andrew completely buried vegetation in coastal Louisiana marshes, and areas of especially thick wrack were slow to recolonize, even a year after landfall35. A 1995 study, however, found that only 30% of wrack mats on a New England salt marsh damaged underlying vegetation36, and while wrack mats were a major cause of damaged low-marsh vegetation in a Virginia salt marsh, vegetation typically recovers37. This suggests that even the 2% of damaged marshes in the study area may be more resilient than originally thought.
Though the vast majority of marshes in the Florida Panhandle were not visually damaged by Hurricane Michael, of the damaged marshes with aerial imagery from six months after the storm, only 16% recovered. Marshes exposed to less extreme environmental conditions during the storm often were more likely to recover; this was the case for the relationship between mean maximum wind speed and deposition recovery, as well as maximum inundation and vegetation loss and conversion to open water.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some forms of damage are easier to recover from than others. More than 45% of marshes experiencing vegetation loss had recovered within six months, whereas only 16% of marshes experiencing deposition of sediment or wrack, the most common form of damage, had visually recovered within 6 months. This is consistent with other studies; marshes in the Mississippi River Delta denuded by Hurricane Camile partially or completely recovered within one growing season, provided the root mat was not destroyed and the area was not permanently submerged12. This study is limited to 6 months after landfall, which is a relatively short time frame and does not include the spring and summer growing seasons. Given that other studies have shown that it can take over a year to recover marsh vegetation after disturbance (including storms and fire)38, and it is likely that more marsh recovery would be observed a full year after disturbance. Despite these considerations, this study provides important insight into the short-term recovery of vegetation (through recolonizing after plucking or growing through thin layers of deposition).
Once vegetation is substantially disturbed or submerged, however, recovery becomes more difficult, and it is these areas that might be prioritized for more active recovery interventions. Kirwan et al. (2008) found that disturbed areas experience decreased vertical accretion, which in turn causes localized submergence of the marsh platform, as well as potential expansion of channel networks, further destabilizing the marsh. Less than 4% of marsh that had been converted to open water and none of the marsh experiencing channel widening or cutting had recovered within 6 months. This is consistent with damage identified from a survey of hurricanes impacting southern Louisiana over the last 50 years12. Since newly formed or widening ponds or channels indicate significant loss of the marsh platform, it is far more difficult for the marsh to both recover elevation and regrow vegetation. Research has shown that ponds created by hurricane impacts could maintain their shape for decades and eventually become a permanent feature39.
This study found that though the vast majority of marshes in Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties were not visually damaged during Hurricane Michael, of the 2% of marshes that did experience damage, 84% had not recovered within six months. This suggests that marshes may be largely resistant to storm impacts but not particularly resilient19, at least within the first six months of disturbance. Recovery rates for marshes on public land were significantly higher than private land. This speaks to the benefits of public land management and the need to create better incentives for marsh management on private lands. Additionally, the majority of marshes on public land are within larger wildlife refuges, state parks, or management areas and, as a result, may be less altered and more resilient to storm impacts.
Future damage surveys incorporating on-the-ground assessments and finer-resolution aerial imagery are recommended to fully understand the impacts of intense storms on salt marshes. Since this study, by design, only quantifies damage and recovery visible from aerial imagery, it is important to consider that there may be additional damage to the marshes that may be small, subtle, or belowground and therefore not observable at the scale of the imagery. While this study is specific to the inundation and hydrodynamic conditions associated with Hurricane Michael, the implications about marsh performance and recovery provide an important base for similar future assessments of future storm impacts.
Post-storm management actions may be key to increasing marsh resistance and resilience after storm impacts. As seen in this study, deposition is the one of the most common forms of marsh damage, but also one of the most easily reversible. While storm-induced sediment deposition is often largely beneficial to building marsh elevation31, wrack deposits may damage vegetation36,37, which in turn must recover by the next growing season to remain resilient to the next hurr icane season. Removing the thickest layers of wrack buildup to prevent vegetation death is a relatively straightforward management activity, which in turn will build the marsh’s resilience to future near-term storm impacts. Cost-effective restoration and recovery efforts should prioritize maintaining vegetation health, particularly in locations where the marsh platform is still intact post-storm. Post-storm wrack removal is a target for recovery funding that may be particularly beneficial.
Results of this study inform policy, funding, and approaches for hazard mitigation, disaster recovery, adaption, and conservation. Very few marshes were damaged or failed during a direct hit from one of the strongest hurricanes to impact the continental United States, and marsh failure rate was generally much lower than that seen for other artificial defenses, even in lower-intensity storms30,31,32. A portion of damaged marshes also began to recover within six months with few or no interventions, which artificial defenses cannot. Managed marshes on public lands are more likely to be both resistant and resilient to storm damage. Previous work has shown that marshes significantly reduced hurricane damage to property15 and are a cost-effective method of coastal protection40. Combined with our results, which indicate that marshes are highly resistant to storm impacts, these studies identify the need for additional public and private incentives, including insurance incentives and hazard mitigation funding, to conserve and restore marshes for their benefits to both people and property. After a storm, allocation of recovery funds to this natural, national infrastructure is imperative to improving management and recovery trajectories, particularly given the potential for more intense hurricane landfalls as the climate changes19.