October 12, 2016
It all began with a single, pregnant mite. Within a few years, thousands of acres of bright green forests would yellow and wither.
From its home in the Eastern Hemisphere, the mite crossed the Atlantic Ocean by ship or winds and made landfall in Martinique. The journey likely occurred sometime in 2003. Within a few years, that mite and its offspring reproduced to create a tiny, gnawing army that felled trees on multiple Caribbean islands. By 2006, the ravenous mites had reached Puerto Rico, where they chewed through coconut palms, bananas, and plantains along the coast. DNA tests show that all of those insects can trace their lineage back to that one mite.
It’s not a myth or a horror story. It’s a series of events and circumstances that prompted research by a group of NASA-funded researchers.
“We were trying to determine what a palm mite infestation looks like from space, and we didn’t have any previous data,“ said Sara Lubkin, the project lead and a professor at the University of Mary Washington. Working together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Puerto Rico, Lubkin and her team tracked the mite’s spread across Puerto Rico by mapping changes to vegetation (such as yellowing) and differences in canopy structure. By counting the number of pixels of affected palms, the researchers were able to get a sense of the scale of the problem in Puerto Rico. The work was funded through NASA’s DEVELOP program, which “addresses environmental and public policy issues” using Earth observations.