Hurricane Irma: NASA’s 3D images show incredible Everglades damage

Eco tour guide Elizabeth Jolin sees the story of Hurricane Irma all around her, still.

More than seven months after the storm tore into the Florida Keys, once hidden rookeries loud with chirps are naked of leaves, the birds and hatchlings exposed. Shadowy mangrove tunnels thick with foliage on one side, are stripped to sticks on the other. Tangles of roots hold tight to sandy bottoms, but green buds of life are sparse.

“I think it’s so confounding,” said Jolin, who owns the Islamorada-based Bay and Reef Company with her husband Xavier Figueredo. “It’s completely changed the habitat and I feel a little powerless because I don’t know what it means to the future.”

WEATHER INSIDER: Like this story? Want more? Sign up for our newsletter

NASA is hoping to answer that question with a study, undertaken by happenstance, about the damage wrought in the Everglades and its recovery.

The research is born out of original projects looking at peat collapse and saltwater intrusion that included lengthy flyovers of 500-square-miles of remote Everglades in March and April 2017.

When the team from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, M.D., returned in December, the landscape was a coarse brown scab.

“It was just like broken toothpicks everywhere with trees splintered and all the stuff that would be in the canopy, twigs and branches, were on the ground,” said David Lagomasino, assistant research professor at the University of Maryland/NASA Goddard. “We realized we had this fantastic dataset from before the storm and what an opportunity it would be to start looking at the affects and regional patterns we get after the hurricane.”


Check The Palm Beach Post live radar.

The tool being used for the study is called Goddard’s Lidar, Hyperspectral and Thermal Imager, or G-LiHT.

G-LiHT carries multiple instruments in one device that can take measurements simultaneously. That means instead of using a single device on individual flights and trying to match the images afterward, the sensors are all flying together collecting the same data at the same time.

The G-LiHT can create 3D images of the forest, including showing the height of plants, topography, and consistency of the tree canopy. It also carries high-resolution cameras and an infrared instrument that can measure plant health based on the amount of reflection from their leaves.

Preliminary results have found that areas that once had 90 percent tree canopy cover were reduced to 10 percent, Lagomasino said. In hardest hit regions, the forest canopy was shortened by 3 to 5 feet by fallen branches and trees.

“So an area where you had a thick layer of green, where you wouldn’t see the sun at all through it, you now have full sun,” Lagomasino said.

Related: Photos show paradise destroyed in the Florida Keys

When the data is fully compared, researchers hope to have a better idea about the vulnerability of Florida’s coastal ecosystems to storms, and why some areas may be more resilient than others.

While the study is focused in Florida, with sister research ongoing in Puerto Rico, there are similar ecosystems around the world that also get hit by hurricanes and could benefit from the findings. Mangroves are especially important because they act as a nursery for many fish species, protect the coastline from erosion and take carbon from the atmosphere, storing it in their trunks.

“Eventually, the goal is to be able to forecast the potential for recovery, and, down the line, people or countries can possibly make policy decisions based on what we find,” said Lola Fatoyinbo, an Earth science remote sensing researcher at NASA Goddard. “It’s really important, especially when you have lots of extreme events happening.”

The 2017 hurricane season spawned 10 hurricanes, including six major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher.

Hurricane Irma made landfall as a Category 4 storm near Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10 with estimated winds of 132 mph. About six hours later, it made landfall near Marco Island as a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds, according to a report from the National Hurricane Center.

Related: Irma among four hurricane names retired.

Storm surge of between 6 and 10 feet was measured along portions of southwestern Florida, within Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.


Hurricane Irma made landfall near Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 10, 2017. 

Peter Frezza, an Everglades research manager for Audubon Florida, said some damage from Irma is just now materializing in the death of vegetation that was damaged but not outright killed by the storm in September.

“It’s taken this long for the plants that were hanging on to die or lose their leaves,” Frezza said. “Without a doubt, there has been a lot of mortality.”

Still, Frezza believes 2005’s Hurricane Wilma did worse damage to the mangroves in the Everglades when it hit as a Category 3 storm along the southwest coast of the state.

But guide company owner and 25-year Keys resident Figueroa said he saw a faster recovery after Wilma, with mangroves bouncing back within three months. With sea level rise, salinity-loving mangroves are forcing a retreat of sawgrass on the edges of the Everglades. Figueroa fears if a crust of mangroves dies off, sea water will make it even deeper into freshwater marshes.

While fishing remains bountiful Figueroa worries about any loss of nursery habitat.

“I don’t want to understate this, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It’s kind of scary.”

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Instagram and Twitter.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Weather

Pets: Evacuation tips
Pets: Evacuation tips

Do not leave pets at home, especially if you live in an evacuation area. Even if they survive the storm, they might flee a damaged home and be lost in the chaos. PHOTO GALLERY: 14 essential tips to keep your pets safe during hurricane season It might be difficult, if not impossible, to find shelter for your animals in the midst of a disaster,...

Homeowners have more options than ever, but it can be difficult to check out companies that are not national brand names.Get help: Try The Post's online insurance guide South Florida not immune to floodingLow-lying neighborhoods and those along canals are vulnerable to fresh-water flooding. What happens when you have to file a claim? Click...
Evacuation zones, procedures
Evacuation zones, procedures

Palm Beach County evacuation zones are determined by the threat of storm surge, not the wind "Category" of a hurricane. Zones are on the Atlantic coast as well as near Pahokee, Belle Glade and Lake Okeechobee. Palm Beach County has a map searchable by address. If a major storm threatens South Florida, it could take up to 99 hours to...
UPDATE: Return of Kirk? Chance of tropical storm reforming up to 70%
UPDATE: Return of Kirk? Chance of tropical storm reforming up to 70%

8 p.m. UPDATE: The remnants of Tropical Storm Kirk are likely to redevelop into a tropical cyclone during the next day or two before it moves into an area of highly unfavorable upper-level winds as it approaches the Caribbean, according to the latest Tropical Weather Outlook from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. STORM...
No tax increase in water district budget, but opposition from unusual source
No tax increase in water district budget, but opposition from unusual source

The leaves of water-lilies (Nymphaea spp.) float ontop of the water and are beneficial to Lake Okeechobee.  The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board will give final consideration to its 2018-2019 budget tonight, which includes no property tax increases for the eighth consecutive year. The tentative budget of $813...
More Stories