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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”