Ecologist explains how Irma turned the Caribbean islands brown, predicts when they’ll bounce back

NASA Earth Observatory images of Barbuda by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Hurricane Irma’s high winds stripped the leaves right off the trees on several Caribbean islands.  Satellite images captured before and after Irma show that the category five winds transformed the U.S. Virgin Islands from green to brown.

U.S Virgin Islands Irma Damage
NASA Earth Observatory images of the virgin islands by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

After our initial report, many Enjoy The Silence readers were curious about how long it will take the vegetation to recover. Thanks to NASA, we now have an expert prediction.

University of Cambridge ecologist, Edmund Tanner,  has authored several studies about damage caused by hurricanes and he recently spoke with NASA’s Earth Observatory.

“Away from the sea [100 meters or so], most of the green to brown is the loss of green leaves because they were blown off,” Says tanner.  “Native vegetation on these islands has been through hundreds of hurricanes since the last major change of climate and have been naturally selected to lose leaves and small branches and re-sprout.”

NASA asked Tanner if the brown color visible on satellite could be mud and debris, but the ecologist does not believe that is the case.

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Tanner predicts that the greening up on the lowlands will take six months, but says we could see a significant change within the first 3-4 months.

Areas of the islands that experienced a storm surge may take considerably longer to recover, but Tanner says those areas are not that large.

Tanner also tells NASA that satellite images are instrumental in measuring the damage and the recovery of the Caribbean islands and the changes should be noticeable by satellite.

Damage to The Virgin Island National Park

This aerial video of St. John further illustrates the forest damage caused by Hurricane Irma’s whipping winds.IMG_5748

St. John is the smallest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands, and about 60% of the island is a United States, National Park.


In 1956, Laurance Rockefeller donated his extensive lands on the island to the United States’ National Park Service, under the condition that the lands were protected from future development.

The park is home to several archeological sites dating from 840BC to the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Over the past ten years, the park has had an average of 450,000 visitors a year.

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