Damage From Hurricane Irma Can Be Seen From Space

Caribbean islands that were once lush and green now appear sickly and brown

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The British and U.S. Virgin Islands before (left) and after (right) the storm. (NASA Earth Observatory)

Before Hurricane Irma landed in Florida, it tore through the northeast Caribbean, leaving widespread devastation in its wake. Powerful winds flattened buildings on small islands like Barbuda and St. Martin, displacing hundreds of residents. At least 36 people have died as a result of the storm. Irma’s wrath was so ferocious, in fact, that the damage it caused can be seen from space.

As Rachel Becker reports for the Verge, NASA satellite images taken before and after the hurricane show that several Caribbean islands, once lush and green, now appear brown. The dramatic images of the landscapes were captured by the Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite in late August, and again in early September, once clouds over the islands had started to clear.

There are a number of explanations for the browning of the devastated landscapes, as Kathryn Hansen explains on the NASA Earth Observatory website. Strong winds may have uprooted dense vegetation, leaving the bare ground exposed. “Also,” Hansen writes, “salt spray whipped up by the hurricane can coat and desiccate leaves while they are still on the trees.”

Interestingly, images taken after the storm show bluer, more vibrant waters than images captured before Irma hit. Hansen explains that the difference in color is likely caused by rougher ocean surfaces, which scatter more light and make the waters appear brighter.

One set of images offers a particularly stark perspective on Irma’s wrath; it shows Barbuda and the neighboring island Antigua, which emerged from the hurricane relatively unscathed. In an image taken on August 21, both islands seem healthy and green. Antigua appears by and large unchanged in an image captured on September 8, but the landscape of Barbuda looks brown and sickly—an aerial reflection of the chaos below.

This pair of images contrasts the devastation on Barbuda with its southerly neighbor Antigua, which emerged from the hurricane relatively unscathed. NASA Earth Observatory

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