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.”

via GIPHY

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.

via GIPHY

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

Alberto: Heavy rains likely in PB County as strengthening storm aims for Gulf coast
Alberto: Heavy rains likely in PB County as strengthening storm aims for Gulf coast

More rain, intermittent heavy wind gusts, and the possibility of tornadoes are forecast for Palm Beach County this holiday weekend as Subtropical Storm Alberto moves through. By 11 p.m., a weather station at Polaski Shoals, Fla., was seeing sustained winds of 38 mph. Heavier rain bands were making landfall near Miami by at 10 p.m. The National...
Florida braces for torrential rain, thunderstorms from Alberto
Florida braces for torrential rain, thunderstorms from Alberto

The first named storm of the 2018 hurricane season arrived prematurely Friday, energized by a roller coaster-like plunge in the upper atmosphere and promising heavy rain for South Florida. Alberto, a subtropical storm that formed a week ahead of the official seasonal start date of June 1, was nearly stationary Friday night in the western Caribbean...
Our beloved Lake Okeechobee is sick: This is how it got that way
Our beloved Lake Okeechobee is sick: This is how it got that way

Paul Gray steeled himself as he took the stick of the airboat and fired up its blades. “It’s going to be kind of sad because the lake has really been pounded,” he said, before aiming the boat’s stubby bough into the sediment-choked soul of Florida. Nearly nine months ago, Hurricane Irma raked over Lake Okeechobee, ...
UPDATE: Alberto ‘moving slowly and erratically,’ over Northwestern Caribbean Sea
UPDATE: Alberto ‘moving slowly and erratically,’ over Northwestern Caribbean Sea

For our latest coverage on Alberto, click here. UPDATE 10:00 p.m.: Subtropical Storm Alberto has picked up a little speed, now moving at 5 mph toward the east, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph. The storm’s maximum winds extend outward up to 140 miles, mostly to the east of its center, according to the National...
Even as system brews, season forecast calls for up to 16 named storms
Even as system brews, season forecast calls for up to 16 named storms

The tropical Atlantic could muster as many as 16 named storms this hurricane season according to a key forecast released Thursday ahead of the official June 1 start date. Hurricane experts at the federal Climate Prediction Center are calling for tropical activity to be near normal to above normal, noting that uncertainty remains about whether a storm-thwarting...
More Stories