Over the weekend, Abaco and Grand Bahama islands took a direct hit from Hurricane Dorian when it was at its peak intensity. Its winds of 298km/h and powerful storm surge washed over the Bahamas’ islands, destroying or damaging an estimated 13,000 homes. Seven people are confirmed dead, and the death toll is expected to rise.
The island’s unique biomes were also hit by the storm. The Bahamian pineyards serve as a home to several species of conservation concern, including the critically endangered Bahama nuthatch. Scientists worry that both the humans and ecosystems that weathered the storm could take decades to recover.
“It is obviously a humanitarian disaster for people living in these northern islands, and the extent is as yet unknown, but we hope that international medical and infrastructure aid will arrive rapidly and generously,” Diana Bell, Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, told Gizmodo. “It is also highly likely to have also been an ecological disaster affecting the already fragmented areas of Caribbean pine forest which support endemic avifauna.”
The pineyards is a region of coniferous forest covering an area smaller than Rhode Island on the Bahamas as well as the Turks and Caicos islands. The ecosystem is especially prevalent on Grand Bahama Island. Deforestation for development has already threatened the forest, while saltwater from storm surges can kill the pine trees. Much of the island is still underwater, and early footage shows much of the tree canopy has been torn apart.
Of the animals affected by the storm, scientists fear most for the Bahama nuthatch. Considered by various authorities either a subspecies of the brown-headed nuthatch or its own species, a 2004 survey estimated the bird’s population stood at around 1,800.
Then a series of hurricanes brought its population down to 23 according to a 2007 survey. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 further reduced the bird’s population, and an exhaustive 2018 search turned up as few as two. Dorian may have been the nail in the coffin as deforestation and the high winds and saltwater flooding from storms have continued to kill the forest’s trees.
The Bahama nuthatch is just one of the species — both endemic and otherwise — that rely on the pineyard habitat. Scientists also worry about the fate of the Bahama warbler as well as the famous Kirtland’s warbler, which spends its winters in the pines.
According to the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment, scientists expect that warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels from climate change will make hurricanes in the Atlantic and Caribbean stronger.
Other recent research indicates hurricanes are slowing down, leading to longer impacts if that happens over land, though the link to climate change is still be investigated. But regardless, more powerful storms lingering around longer could spell disaster for both people and islands’ endemic species.