Coweeta Technicians Travel to Puerto Rico

Two Week Trip Repairing Research Towers

El Yunque NF
View of El Yunque NF from Bisley Experimental Watersheds. Photo by Katie Bower.

Electric blue squares dotted the urban landscape. From the descending plane, USDA Forest Service visitors thought they might be swimming pools. Alas, they were tarps covering the roofs of homes and keeping leaks at bay on rainy days.

These tarps were the first sign of lingering damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Broken roads, twisted streetlights, and downed power lines exhibited the storms’ impacts on the island’s infrastructure.

They painted a disheartening picture.

In El Yunque National Forest and the Guayama Research Area, additional damage was inflicted in the form of broken climatology instruments. Various weather stations and towers studded with climate sensors had faced the wrath of these storms. They did not fare well.

El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system and is highly biologically diverse. As such, it is an important area of scientific study and has a long research history. Research efforts in the Luquillo Experimental Forest in El Yunque are conducted by the International Institute of Tropical Forests (IITF) and the Luquillo Long Term Ecological Research (Luquillo LTER) program.

The hurricanes damaged so many weather stations, sensors, and towers that IITF’s program leader, Grizelle Gonzalez, sent out a request for help from sister research stations on the U.S. mainland. The Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in western NC eagerly responded.

Sabana Tower
Canopy tower at Sabana Field Research Station. Photo by Katie Bower.

Coweeta’s program leader, Chelcy Miniat, recruited two technicians to join a small team in El Yunque to repair the broken equipment. Forest Service technician Chris Sobek and Coweeta LTER technician Katie Bower went to Puerto Rico in March 2018. Both technicians have considerable experience installing, wiring, repairing, and replacing many of the sensors that are utilized in El Yunque. They maintain similar meteorological networks at Coweeta.

They joined IITF technicians Carlos Estrada Ruiz and Joel Olivencia and set out to conquer their tasks over the course of two weeks.

On the first day, the team worked at the Sabana Field Research Station. That morning, they troubleshot a program and then removed the sensors from a small tripod weather station situated in front of the Sabana facilities. Instead of replacing the sensors there, the equipment was placed at the top of a canopy-height scaffolding tower located behind Sabana.

The forest floor displayed the greens of recovering growth during the short walk to the tower. “The understory was lush,” notes Sobek. “Vines were overtaking the bits of trees that were still standing.”

Sabana Tower
Sabana Tower. Pictured top to bottom: Carlos Estrada Ruiz, Joel Olivencia, Chris Sobek. Photo by Katie Bower.

Bower voiced a different perspective. “The forest was very distressed. All of the fine twigs were gone … the new growth on some of the tree trunks just made them look like bottle brushes.”

After climbing the Sabana tower, Sobek and Estrada installed a data logger, an environmental enclosure, and a new anemometer, which measures wind speed and direction. Bower and Olivencia stayed on the ground where they tied equipment so it could be hauled onto the tower by rope.

The Sabana installation was completed on their second work day. Olivencia joined Estrada and Sobek on the tower so they could install the solar panel and finish wiring the data logger.

The third day took them to the Bisley Experimental Watersheds southwest of Sabana. The road into Bisley had been made impassable due to a landslide and downed vegetation, so the team walked in with their equipment. Bower spent the morning wiring a data logger after helping to install a new enclosure at a streamside site. Estrada and Sobek then replaced equipment on another canopy tower.

dwarf trees
Dwarfed trees on Pico del Este. Photo by Katie Bower.

Day four was a longer drive to Pico del Este, or East Peak. The road was closed to the public due to another landslide. Road construction workers were actively building around the crumbled landscape. The road was still passable, however, and Forest Service employees were able to drive through.

A 30-foot climb-up tower was near the top of Pico del Este. A radar dome sits there alongside an abandoned military facility. They overlook a dwarf forest — the palm trees shortened by a wet, harsh climate at the high elevation site. Misty clouds coated the mountainside and occasionally parted to show glimpses of the landscape below.

Sobek and Bower exchanged the data logger with a different model and rewired the sensors. Estrada climbed the tower to make some repairs.

View from abandoned building on Pico del Este. Photo by Katie Bower.

The crew ate lunch on the balcony of the military installation. Eventually, the thick clouds gave way to sunlight and they could peer out at the mountains, valleys, towns, and seasides around them.

While returning to Sabana, Estrada made several stops to show Sobek and Bower the sights along the way. He had spent some time in Pisgah National Forest, and employees there had shown him around their forest. He wished to pay the favor forward by showing off El Yunque. They climbed up into the stone tower at Mt. Britton, paused at Yokahu Tower, and visited Bano de Oro, a stone pool constructed by the CCC. Bano de Oro was unfortunately drained at the time.

The fifth morning was spent repairing damage on a weather station at El Toro. Upon finishing, the crew’s next stop was El Verde Field Station, but not before they stopped to admire a small waterfall on Rio Espiritu Santo.

At El Verde, the team recovered data from a logger that was monitoring a canopy trimming experiment.  Estrada explained that the experiment’s purpose was to mimic hurricane damage. Hurricanes Irma and Maria, however, had effectively trimmed the canopy of the control plots as well.

Guayama Research Area. Photo by Katie Bower.

Day six was a long drive to the south side of the island and Guayama Research Area. The crew tipped the 30-foot climb-up tower towards the ground and leaned it against Estrada’s truck to proceed with repairs.

Guayama proved to be Bower’s favorite site despite the three to four hour trip. Unlike the rainforest in El Yunque, Guayama and the surrounding region sits in a rain shadow. The mountains were more arid and the vegetation alternated between grass, scrub, and forest. Butterflies were plentiful and they fluttered rapidly between flowers.

Broken climate tower at Guayama Research Area. Distant view of southern coastline. Photo by Katie Bower.

The team visited Guayama two more times for work days seven and eight. During those days on top of a mountain ridge, they encountered the most obvious hurricane damage inflicted on a station so far. Previous sites had lost sensors, loggers, and enclosures, but the Guayama ridge site had a warped, broken 30-foot climb-up tower. The team worked to remove overgrown vegetation, replace the twisted section, and re-wire the datalogger.

Sobek and Bower completed their tour of duty on the ninth day by finishing a few odds and ends around Sabana.

All told, the two technicians feel they accomplished what they set out to do and hope they represented Coweeta well in the endeavor. They salute the resilience of the Puerto Ricans and the generosity and optimism of their teammates.

Photographing a photographer. Picture of Katie Bower from Sabana Tower. Photo by Chris Sobek.