Before now-Tropical Storm Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys, killing at least nine and doing untold damage, then-Hurricane Irma barreled through the Caribbean, killing dozens and flattening entire islands.
According to the NASA Earth Observatory, the damage to the Virgin Islands is obvious even from its Landsat 8 satellite, which was able to capture high-definition photographs showing the islands’ lush green turning to a muddy brown after Irma hit them at Category 5 status with 185 mile per hour (298 kilometers an hour) winds.
There’s no single reason why the island chain turned into a completely different color, though it is easily explained by a combination of factors.
Irma tore up ground, sprayed debris and generally left the ground covered in detritus. As NASA Earth Observatory’s Kathryn Hansen wrote, other likely causes include that high winds stripped away plants, revealing bare soil, and that “salt spray whipped up by the hurricane can coat and desiccate leaves while they are still on the trees.”
Images of Virgin Gorda, she added, show remaining greenery in the south and west of the island were likely protected by hills.
The entire Caribbean region saw at least 38 deaths as a result of Hurricane Irma, which wiped some smaller islands like Barbuda practically off the map. The observatory posted similar satellite images showing widespread devastation there; the neighboring island of Antigua, where the damage was reportedly less widespread, remained bright and green.
The Virgin Islands saw such serious damage that the Washington Post reported locals say no one knows how to proceed in Irma’s wake, with looting and armed burglaries reported. Video showed widespread destruction. Entire towns had few surviving structures.
Restaurant manager Lauren Boquette, who was on St. John, told the Post they emerged to see “beyond rough times, it was end-of-the-world times. Everything normal to us has been destroyed.”
Update: Some of the specific wording in this article has been updated after comments suggested it implied the observed browning was a mystery. As noted, it’s just a combination of possible factors.