Hurricane Irma has caused catastrophic damage in the Atlantic this month, and in less than two weeks, the storm--the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the history of the region, was downgraded from Category 5 (with winds exceeding 295 km/hr at the peak of its power), as it leveled many islands in the Caribbean, to Category 4 before touching down on the Florida coast a few days ago. From massive power outages and before unseen infrastructural damage to loss of human life, the storm caused the bulk of its damage from September 6th to 7th. From information coming from all sources, however, the worst is over.
Because storm clouds obscured the views of the region from space, scientists at NASA had been relying on only partial images. In the last two days, however, satellite images of alarming clarity are emerging from NASA, as the focus has shifted momentarily from looking at the damage on the ground--which the local and international media have covered with incredible humanity and generosity--to views from the Earth.
What we essentially have is side-by-side comparison of images of several islands taken on August 25th and September 8th and10th, revealing the impact of the storms topographically. In truth, there are few existing images like these from the past month which offer such a stark contrast. The natural color images are supplied by the Operational Land Manager on the Landsat 8 satellite, Terra on the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Aqua on the MODIS and include shots of some of the most hard hit islands in the region. Looking at the images, it looks as if whole sections of some of the islands--particularly Saint Thomas and Barbuda--have had brown painted over them.
The satellite images do not answer some questions, of course, about why some sections remained green. One possibility could be that green areas were better shielded from the winds, or perhaps luck was on their side, or desiccation of leaves could have occurred due to the high amounts of salt water coming in contact with trees and plants.
Not all islands seemed to have been affected the same: the vegetation on Antigua appears to be relatively unaffected by the storm, again pointing to the frustrating randomness of the storm's path. Interestingly, there has been much written in the past week about the impact in terms of anxiety and anticipation that expecting and coping with the reality of a storm of this magnitude can have on the human psyche. Psychoanalyst Mark Ruffalo elaborates: "What psychologists do, like meteorologists, is use certain models and instruments to make informed guesses at future events. But just as the behavior of persons cannot be predicted, hurricanes, too, are often beyond the scope of accurate prediction due to the sheer number of variables at play. A hurricane, like a person, can choose at the last second to do something different, to change its course, to take a different direction.”
Whether we look at this storm from the ground or from space, its impact on thousands of people and the environment will be studied for many years to come.