Understanding tropical forest abiotic response to hurricanes using experimental manipulations, field observations, and satellite data
With projected increasing intensity of hurricanes and large uncertainty in the path of forest recovery from hurricanes, studies are needed to understand the fundamental response of forests to canopy opening and debris deposition: the response of the abiotic factors underneath the canopy. Through two manipulative experiments and instrumenting prior to Hurricane Maria (2017) in the Luquillo Experimental Forest (LEF) of Puerto Rico, this study found a long recovery time of primary abiotic factors (beneath canopy light, throughfall, and temperature) influenced by the disturbance of canopy opening, as well as complex responses by the secondary abiotic factors (relative humidity, soil moisture, and leaf saturation) influenced by the disturbance of the primary factors. Recovery took 4–5 years for beneath canopy light, while throughfall recovery took 4–9 years and neither had recovered when Hurricane Maria passed 3 years after the second experiment. Air and soil temperature seemingly recovered quickly from each disturbance (<2.5 years in two experiments for ∼+1 ∘C of change); however, temperature was the most important modulator of secondary factors, which followed the long-term patterns of the throughfall. While the soil remained wetter and relative humidity in the air stayed lower until recovery, leaves in the litter and canopy were wetter and drier, with evidence that leaves dry out faster in low rainfall and saturate faster in high rainfall after disturbance. Comparison of satellite and field data before and after the 2017 hurricanes showed the utility of satellites in expanding the data coverage, but the muted response of the satellite data suggests they measure dense forest as well as thin forest that is not as disturbed by hurricanes. Thus, quick recovery times recorded by satellites should not be assumed representative of all the forest. Data records spanning the multiple manipulative experiments followed by Hurricane Maria in the LEF provide evidence that intermediate hurricane frequency has the most extreme abiotic response (with evidence on almost all abiotic factors tested) versus infrequent or frequent hurricanes.