How atomic doomsday experiments, fuelled by Cold War fears, shaped, then shook ecologists’ faith in self-healing nature

Laura J Martin

When Hurricane Fiona flooded regions of Puerto Rico with up to 30 inches of rain in September last year, the island was still recovering from hurricanes Irma and Maria, two catastrophic storms in 2017 during which nearly 3,000 people died. Fiona left close to 200,000 residents without drinkable water and 1.3 million without power, highlighting the fragility of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and the paucity of United States federal aid to its citizens.

Puerto Rico has experienced intense tropical storms for centuries, but anthropogenic climate change is altering their frequency, strength and character. For the past few decades, for example, the island has suffered both monstrous hurricanes and deep droughts: an unusual combination.

María Uriarte, a professor at Columbia University in New York, has studied this unusual combination at Luquillo for 20 years. Uriarte began her work on hurricanes in order to understand their destructive force, but without the anticipation that hurricanes themselves would change over the course of her career.

Uriarte is a disturbance ecologist, a biologist who studies how storms, fires, insect outbreaks and other events shape communities of plants and animals. Disturbance ecologists like her seek to understand how certain species persist in the face of stressors and even catastrophes. Some disturbances, like volcanic eruptions, are clearly caused by nonhuman agents. Others, like fires, invasive species and climate change, are a muddle of human and nonhuman forces. Anyone who has heard of pinecones that require fire to open or battled with the bindweed and dandelions that first colonise turned-over soil has encountered disturbance ecology…..