By Chantelle Barretto
Here at the Rainforest Partnership, we maintain a heavy focus on the world’s largest forest: the Amazon Rainforest. However, there are many other tropical rainforests throughout the planet that deserve our interest and protection too. In fact, if we want to devote our attention to our own natural resources here in the United States, we need look no further than Puerto Rico! The El Yunque Rain Forest covers 28,000 acres on the east side of the island, and is home to hundreds of tree and tropical bird species, dozens of which are unique to the island (*1). El Yunque is the sole rainforest that the United States can boast of.
As our planet’s temperature climbs, and drastic weather events become more commonplace, our precious forests – and all the life forms within – are in peril. This past month saw three devastating hurricanes hit the southern coast of the United States and Caribbean Islands back-to-back. Recent headlines have shown us just how badly hit the outlying American island of Puerto Rico was by Hurricane Maria. That Category 4 storm saw wind speeds of over 155 mph, and was the worst the island had seen in 85 years. (*2) For context, weaker tree trunks reach breaking point at around 72 mph, while even the strongest trees tend to snap at speeds over 100mph. (*3) The damage wrought by the natural disaster was of historic proportions, and, sadly, The El Yunque Rain Forest was not spared from nature’s wrath.
According to the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Hurricane Maria hit the small island so hard that it left most of the forest “completely defoliated” (*1). Now, vast swaths of the forest have been left totally uncovered and exposed to sunlight and other elements from which they have been shielded for decades by the forest’s dense foliage. That previously fecund shrubbery played a crucial part in balancing the island’s ecosystem: the transpiration performed within the rainforest supplied its 8 rivers, which provide the island with 20% of its water.(*1)
When the winds of Hurricane Maria hit El Yunque, they blasted off much of the bryophytes that clung to tree trunks and collected water. The lack of foliage, canopy, and the sheer stress induced by the hurricane have also dealt massive blows to the fauna of the forest. Several of the forest’s endangered birds, including the Puerto Rican parrot, are facing a dire future after many individuals were obliterated during the storm. And as for species of native frogs, like the mountain coqui, this storm may well have been their kiss of death (*2).
Puerto Rico is no stranger to tropical storms; Hurricanes Hugo and Georges have previously torn through the island and devastated its ecology. Recovery from those storms took up to 2 years to garner momentum (*3). But, this time, things are a little worse. Because of the sheer extent of devastation the island saw, estimates range anywhere from 10 years to a century before we see the forest return to its former glory (*1). The story of the El Yunque forest should serve as a cautionary tale about the necessity of protecting our forests. This was a domestic tragedy, and one that has dealt the United States as a whole a great blow in terms of ecological diversity. We cannot wait for things to get worse before we strive to make them better. How many more national treasures like El Yunque do we sacrifice before we take action to put a halt to climate change?