Much has been documented about the way that Hurricane Maria destroyed infrastructure in Puerto Rico, but less has been said about the devastation it brought to natural habitats. Now researchers hope that the storm, which destroyed the island’s forest cover, can illustrate how increasingly severe weather will impact global ecosystems.
Researchers at El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, are running controlled studies on how plants respond to higher temperatures combined—since the cataclysmic blow from Hurricane Maria—with severe weather. Not far away, another group is looking at how hurricanes affect the forest environment.
“It’s a once-in-a-century opportunity to look at these two aspects of climate change together,” said Tana Wood, a research ecologist with the Forest Service.
On September 20, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, causing a total blackout and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. Just two weeks earlier, Hurricane Irma hit the island, leaving one million residents without power but not doing significant damage to the island.
Because of the combined destruction of these storms in Puerto Rico, researchers have the opportunity to study how soil and plants respond to extreme weather events caused by increasingly warmer climates. Meteorologists predict that the next five years could see record-breaking temperatures. As Colorlines has previously reported, global warming not only impacts the wind intensity of storms, but it also influences the amount of rain that falls.
While the studies are focused on the Caribbean, their findings will have a global impact. “Tropical forests play a key role in recycling carbon dioxide, and they store about a third of the world’s carbon,” writes The AP. “They also help generate rainfall across the world by releasing water vapor, which in turn creates clouds.”
“Anything that happens in these systems can have an effect on the world’s climate,” Woods told the news source.
The studies are slated to continue for the next few years, provided there is not a need to interrupt them during upcoming hurricane seasons.