The Path of Succession

After a major hurricane, it can take years for nature to recover. In this series, we look at the ways Irma has changed St. Martin, and how the island recovers—day by day and week by week.

Grasses are often first to bounce back.

For the people of St. Martin, rebuilding after Irma will involve many plans and decisions. For nature, the path to recovery flows from the interactions between plants and animals. How an ecosystem changes over time is called succession.

When a new island rises from the sea, or a lava flow destroys an area completely, the process of colonizing this new land is called primary succession. It is a long process from the first pioneers to a rich community of life, and happens rarely. Secondary succession is more common. It happens when a disturbance disrupts an ecosystem, and it is happening right here, right now.

The hurricane had a huge impact on St. Martin’s nature. Leaves were ripped from plants, trees were broken and uprooted and animals perished. Yet amidst this chaos, nature began to recover in an orderly fashion.

The process usually starts small. Grasses and other fast-growing plants sprout up quickly. In places once shaded by trees and shrubs, they drink in the sunlight. Their speedy recovery helps hold soil that could be washed away, and provides food for animals that survived.

In turn, each species takes advantage of the opportunities offered by disruption. On Pic Paradis, seedlings are racing towards the light. They will compete to replace fallen trees until the canopy above the forest floor is full again.

The recovery of surviving trees is part of succession.

After a hurricane, although the destruction can seem devastating, it is rarely complete. The regrowth of surviving trees and plants is often a part of the succession process. The species that survive may dominate the landscape for a time, until new seedlings of other species mature.

Although the process is quick to begin, it can take years to complete. Some plants may be particularly hard-hit by hurricanes, like bromeliads that grow on tree limbs. Some, like ferns may depend on shady, moist habitats that take time to develop after a storm. Species that are slow to grow, like hardwood trees, may take decades to recover.

Birds and bats bring seeds to areas cleared by hurricanes.

The path of succession also depends on the state of landscape before the disruption. Are there rich communities of native plants ready to colonize the land? Are there healthy populations of birds and bats to spread seeds? As nature takes her path to recovery, we have an opportunity to influence the future. We can plant native trees and protect natural spaces or we could destroy them. How we participate in the process is up to us.

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