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Tracking the Rates and Mechanisms of Canopy Damage and Recovery Following Hurricane Maria Using Multitemporal Lidar Data

Abstract

Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, snapped and uprooted canopy trees, removed large branches, and defoliated vegetation across Puerto Rico. The magnitude of forest damages and the rates and mechanisms of forest recovery following Maria provide important benchmarks for understanding the ecology of extreme events. We used airborne Lidar data acquired before (2017) and after Maria (2018, 2020) to quantify landscape-scale changes in forest structure along a 439-ha elevational gradient (100–800 m) in the Luquillo Experimental Forest. Damages from Maria were widespread, with 73% of the study area losing ≥ 1 m in canopy height (mean = −7.1 m). Taller forests at lower elevations suffered more damage than shorter forests above 600 m. Yet only 13.5% of the study area had canopy heights ≤ 2 m in 2018, a typical threshold for forest gaps, highlighting the importance of damaged trees and advanced regeneration on post-storm forest structure. Heterogeneous patterns of regrowth and recruitment yielded shorter and more open forests by 2020. Nearly 45% of forests experienced initial height loss > 1 m (2017–2018) followed by rapid height gain > 1 m (2018–2020), whereas 21.6% of forests with initial height losses showed little or no height gain, and 17.8% of forests exhibited no height changes larger than ± 1 m in either period. Canopy layers < 10 m tall accounted for most increases in canopy height and fractional cover between 2018 and 2020, with gains split evenly between height growth and lateral crown expansion by surviving individuals. These findings benchmark rates of gap formation, crown expansion, and canopy closure following hurricane damage and highlight the diversity of ecosystem impacts from heterogeneous spatial patterns and vertical stratification of forest regrowth following a major disturbance event.

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Data Availability

Lidar data in this study are online at https://gliht.gsfc.nasa.gov. Data files used in the analysis are available from the NGEE Tropics Data Collection at http://dx.doi.org/10.15486/ngt/1797399.

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Acknowledgements

Funding for this study was provided by the US Department of Energy (Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program, Interagency Agreements with the US Forest Service # 89243018SSC000012 and with NASA # 89243018SSC000013, and support to VL, DCM, and MK from the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment-Tropics, Office of Biological and Environmental Research). Additional funding was provided by the USDA Forest Service, US Department of Interior (National Institute of Food and Agriculture # 2018–67,030-28,124), and NASA. The USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Luquillo LTER, and NASA’s Airborne Science Program provided logistical support.

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Correspondence to Douglas C. Morton.

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Author Contributions: DCM and MK conceived the study; VL and DCM designed the analysis; BDC and LAC collected airborne Lidar data; VL and DCM analyzed data; all authors contributed to the interpretation of results and manuscript preparation.

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Leitold, V., Morton, D.C., Martinuzzi, S. et al. Tracking the Rates and Mechanisms of Canopy Damage and Recovery Following Hurricane Maria Using Multitemporal Lidar Data. Ecosystems (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-021-00688-8

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Keywords

  • forest structure
  • cyclone
  • Lidar
  • succession
  • ecosystem modeling
  • canopy traits
  • plasticity
  • tropical forest