3D Map of Puerto Rico’s Forest Shows How Hurricane Maria Reduced Tree Height

Caitlin Dempsey


Researchers who compared before and after LiDAR measurements of Puerto Rico’s tropical forests found that Hurricane Maria damaged or uprooted 40-60% of the tallest trees. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Lidar, Hyperspectral, and Thermal (G-LiHT) Airborne Imager generates 600,000 laser pulses per second, collecting information about tree structure and composition.  Six-months prior to Hurricane Maria, NASA researchers had collected information about the health of Puerto Rico’s forests.  A return in April of 2018 after the hurricane  remeasured the same areas.  The results from both G-LiHT data collection efforts is a 3D view of the forest structure in high resolution.

Doug Morton of Goddard compared the destruction that occurred after Hurricane Maria: “Maria gave the island’s forests a haircut. The island lost so many large trees that the overall height of forests was shortened by one-third. We basically saw 60 years’ worth of what we would otherwise consider natural treefall disturbances happen in one day.”

The loss of trees to Hurricane Maria will have lasting effects.  Trees help to stabilize the soils and loose tree debris contributes to landslides and soil erosion.  Not all trees were affected at the same rate. Researchers found that palms along with shrubs and shorter trees in the understory survived at a higher rate.

This comparative video shows 2017 and 2018 G-LiHT measurements of the tree canopy in Puerto Rico.  The 2018 canopy is noticeably thinner with larger areas of exposed soil.

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3D Map of Puerto Rico’s Forest: Before and After Hurricane Maria

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.