NASA shows how Hurricane Irma changed the Caribbean's look

Hurricane Irma took its toll, even changing the overall appearance of islands such as Barbuda. But an ecologist tells the space agency the trees will recover.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
2 min read

Hurricane devastation as seen from space puts the recent natural disasters in a whole new light. On Wednesday, NASA tweeted photos of the Caribbean island of Barbuda before and after Hurricane Irma. 

The two photos look as if they're being seen through different-colored filters, with the image taken Aug. 27 rich and green, and the one taken Sept. 12 looking like a brown, burned cookie.

NASA has collected other before-and-after images of the Caribbean, and the green-to-brown change is widespread.


Two photos of the Caribbean islands, the first taken on Aug. 25, the second on Sept. 10.


In a NASA interview with University of Cambridge ecologist Edmund Tanner, the space agency reports the change shouldn't be permanent.

"Most of the green to brown is the loss of green leaves because they were blown off," Tanner said. "Native vegetation on these islands has been through hundreds of hurricanes since the last major change of climate (10,000 years ago, the end of the most recent ice age) and have been naturally selected to lose leaves and small branches and re-sprout. I doubt if it is mud since the fairly heavy rain will have washed that off."


Virgin Gorda (at left on Aug. 25, at right on Sept. 10) was somewhat shielded by hills, and managed to hang on to some of its green leaves. NASA notes that the difference in ocean color is caused by rough seas, which appear brighter and lighter.


Tanner says the re-greening of the islands will take about six months. But some small portions of the Caribbean islands will have a tougher recovery.

"Salt water from storm surge may have killed trees whose roots were inundated with it," he said. "Those trees will take much longer to recover because the soil will need to be desalinated naturally by rain, and seeds will have to germinate and grow. The areas involved are not likely to be large -- a fringing zone of a few hundred hectares in some places."

Earlier in the month, ISS commander and astronaut Randy Bresnik shared sobering images of Hurricanes Irma and Jose  as seen from space.

Hurricane hunters witness Irma's ire from above

See all photos