NASA has released more than 65,000 high-resolution aerial images of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, which document the full extent of the ecological damage caused by the deadly hurricane in 2017. With only days remaining before the start of the 2018 hurricane season, the images from NASA reflect the impact from last year’s record-breaking storms — an impact that is still felt today.
NASA gathered the images in a survey this past April, building upon similar work from the previous spring. The original mission focused on tracking long-term forest regeneration after humans abandoned land. After Maria, the mission shifted to become the first comprehensive aerial survey of the island following the devastating storm.
“The photos are powerful,” NASA earth scientist Doug Morton told Earther. “[They’re] powerful reminders of the extent of damage.” In a typical year, scientists would expect to observe damage from storms on about 1 percent of the total forest canopy. In the wake of 2017, NASA images show that about 50 percent of forest canopy has suffered damage. “Every forest type we observed has clear signs of damage from the hurricane,” Morton noted. However, the forest is expected to recover. “It’s pretty much prime growing conditions,” said Morton, referring to the now-abundant sunlight and nutrient accumulation from fallen trees and leaves on the forest floor.
While some ecosystems in Puerto Rico may be recovering quickly, others, such as the mangrove swamps found in the island’s northeast region, are still struggling. This data is important to the team at NASA as they try to learn more about the varied resilience of diverse ecosystems found in Puerto Rico. The team also plans to use its aerial imagery and LiDAR data to better inform recovery efforts.
Images via NASA