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Puerto Rico’s National Forest Devastated by Hurricane Maria: Long Recovery in Sight

Swamp Stomp

Volume 17, Issue 43

After being devastated by hurricane Maria last September, Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States Forest Service system, may take a long time to fully recover according to ecologists from the International Institute of Tropical Forestry and the US Forest Service.

El Yunque, pronounced “el jun-kay”, is a 28,000 square acre forest on the eastern side of the island that was almost completely defoliated by Maria’s 155 mph winds. It is home to 240 different species of trees, 23 of which are only found in Puerto Rico, as well as 50 species of birds including the endemic and critically endangered Puerto Rican Parrot.

In past hurricanes, bird populations have suffered temporarily as the fruit bearing trees that they rely upon for food struggle to regrow. After Maria, however, ecologists surveying the forest found scores of dead birds lying on the ground, suggesting that they had been killed by the hurricane’s vicious winds rather than by starvation.

This population reduction could in turn hinder the proper regrowth of the forest; as pollinator species, birds, as well as bats, assist in plant reproduction and forestation by consuming fruit and dispersing their seeds via excrement to other parts of the island. If these pollinator species’ populations sustained large enough losses during the hurricane, the natural process of seed dispersal could be compromised, ultimately taking the forest longer to recover.

Yet charismatic flora and fauna are not the only ones who will suffer from the rainforest’s destruction. Due to the canopy’s almost complete defoliation, the moist, acidic soil of the forest floor that is normally shaded is now exposed to the sun’s withering heat for the first time in decades, desiccating the soil and potentially interfering with the ecosystem services the rainforest provides to humans.

Chief amongst these services is the capacity to absorb, filter and distribute into rivers the billions of gallons of rainwater that fall on the island annually; El Yunque is the headwaters of eight other rivers that provide drinking water to 20% of Puerto Rico’s citizens.

Yet this ecosystem service relies upon the growth of bryophyte mosses on the trunks of trees to capture that rainwater, a service now hindered after Maria stripped most of the trees’ bark bare of the moss. With only 60% of the island’s wastewater treatment centers functional and 37% of residents lacking access to clean water after the hurricane, the damage to the rainforest’s water processing capabilities only exacerbates the island’s growing humanitarian crises.

In the long term, El Yunque’s slow recovery could do harm to Puerto Rico’s already beleaguered economy, which relies heavily on tourism and increasingly on eco-tourism. An estimated 1.2 million people visit the national forest annually to hike, camp, bird watch and hang glide, contributing to the $1.8 billion the territory earns annually from tourism. As large swaths of the forest remain inaccessible by road from debris scattered by hurricane Maria’s rain and winds, the national forest remains closed to visitors for the foreseeable future.

Sources:

  1. Ferré-Sadurní, Luis. “Another Victim of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico’s Treasured Rainforest.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 October 2017. Web. 14 October 2017.
  2. Roig-Franzia, Manuel and Arelis R. Hernández. “Three weeks since Hurricane Maria, much of Puerto Rico still dark, thirsty and frustrated.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post (WP Company LLC), 11 October 2017. Web. 14 October 2017.
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