A hard-hit area of coastal forest and mangrove swamp near Laguna Grande in northeastern Puerto Rico.
Photo: NASA

We’re 10 days out from the 2018 hurricane season, but if a new NASA-led aerial survey is any indicator, Puerto Rico’s forests and wetlands still have a long way to go before they’ve recovered from the last one.

In April, a NASA science plane flew across a vast swath of Puerto Rico’s ecosystems, from tropical rainforests in the northeast to dry forests in the southwest. A follow-on to a similar mission conducted last spring, the goal was initially to track long-term forest regrowth after land abandonment.

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Hurricane Maria changed all that. Instead of focusing on land use change, the research flights—whose G-LiHT instrument system included LiDAR and more—became the first large-scale, multi-sensor aerial survey of the island after the Category 4 storm that struck last September.

They survey’s 65,000+ high-resolution images, released online this week, reveal that Puerto Rico’s unique ecosystems are still hurting in a big way.

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“Every forest type we observed has clear signs of damage from the hurricane,” Doug Morton, an earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center who participated in the new surveys, told Earther.

In a normal year, Morton said, they’d expect about one percent of the forest canopy to have been damaged by windstorms and other natural causes. This year, about 50 percent of the canopy was damaged across much of the 3,000 kilometers of flight lines surveyed.

That means a lot more light and heat reaching the forest floor, which, combined with all the foliage blown off trees by the storm, equates to a pulse of energy and nutrients that will help ecosystems recover. “It’s pretty much prime growing conditions,” Morton said, noting that despite the lingering damage, vegetation is clearly bouncing back in many areas.

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Some spots are taking longer than others, though. The mangrove swamps in the northeast, home to one of Puerto Rico’s famed bioluminescent bays, still seemed incredibly damaged seven months after Maria.

Part of the goal of the survey was to suss out winners and losers among the vegetation, and learn which ecosystems are most resilient across the island. To that end, the researchers plan to compare notes with various field research groups on the ground in Puerto Rico.

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Another goal is to offer high-quality aerial imagery and data that will be helpful to land managers involved in the island’s ongoing recovery process. Morton noted that the survey’s LiDAR data, which provides a 3-D look at the forest canopy, can be used to make quantitative estimates of the loss of trees and soil that can help guide planning and recovery.

On a more basic level, the survey offers a potent reminder that for the island of Puerto Rico and the American citizens who call it home, the disaster of Hurricane Maria is far from over.

“The photos are powerful,” Morton said. “[They’re] powerful reminders of the extent of damage.”

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