Hurricane Maria potential game-changer for Horn Point student’s research

May 1, 2018
Juan Alvarez works in Laguna Grande, one of Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays, to collect data, such as salinity and temperature, and water samples to look for Pyrodinium bahamense.

When Juan Alvarez was about 5 years old, he took a family vacation he would never forget.

The boy who grew up in a rural part of Puerto Rico was bound for the archipelago's shores and an adventure that included a boat ride after dark.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then they start pulling buckets of water, and the water was glowing,” Alvarez said, smiling at the memory. “It was pretty amazing. It’s one of those memories that stays with you forever.”

Years later, when Alvarez started pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, he focused his research on that glow-in-the-dark creature.

Now, as he prepares for his annual May trip to study the bioluminescent bays, he finds himself feeling the same mix of nerves and excitement as he had when he first got on that nighttime cruise. This will be his first time returning to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria ripped through it with 150 mile-per-hour winds.

Alvarez knows his family is safe and has power again, but he isn’t sure what to expect overall. Personally, Puerto Rico likely won’t look anything like it did when he last saw it, and scientifically, the storm could take his research in new directions.

“Sometimes you need to reconcile your scientific mindset with your personal side,” Alvarez said. “This can be a game-changing visit.”

Alvarez wanted to go to Puerto Rico in the days after the storm but decided against it. He felt he could help raise awareness and support for the archipelago more from Maryland, while also avoiding a visit that might further diminish Puerto Rico’s already limited resources. He worked with his peers at UMCES to raise money and collect goods to send over, and then he waited for recovery to begin.

When it comes to hurricanes, it’s a bit more complicated. We don’t have a lot of data on the impact of hurricanes on these systems and the population.


Jamie Pierson, one of Alvarez’s two advisors at UMCES, aims to teach his students that research opportunities often bring the unexpected.

Juan Alvarez (far left) with the 2013 Puerto Rico initiative undergraduates in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Maryland Sea Grant

“What you want is to have a research project that’s flexible. The hurricane made some big changes and with the measurements that Juan’s doing, he can quantify those changes,” Pierson said.

Pierson added, however, that there was a lot of tragedy from this storm that can’t be overlooked for any science and waiting for the right time to return to the work was critical.

“When it’s appropriate, we can go and try to learn something about what happened in this storm and put it to good use for when it happens again,” he said.

Alvarez first met Pierson and his other advisor, Lora Harris, when the two professors started working with Maryland Sea Grant to establish a marine science educational program in Puerto Rico.

Alvarez's undergraduate adviser, Ruby Montoya, was setting up a pilot program with Maryland Sea Grant Director Fredrika Moser and recruited Alvarez to help as a volunteer.

The program has since developed into Centro TORTUGA (Tropical Oceanography Research Training for Undergraduate Academics). The program includes a workshop for undergraduate students in Puerto Rico to do field research on the bioluminescent lagoons and a four-week course for students who return for a second year. UMCES professors Jeff Cornwell, Pierson and Harris have been guiding the students in the research and course studies.

RELATED: Maryland Sea Grant, UMCES develop Centro TORTUGA

In talking to the professors about the bioluminescent bays, Alvarez started to see the bays differently than he had most of his life.

“I knew they were magical places, but I wasn’t quite aware of the research needs. From engaging in conversations with them, I started getting more interested in the systems and designed my own research project around these systems.”

Each year, Alvarez goes to Puerto Rico a little before the Sea Grant workshop starts in May and stays well after to do his graduate research.

His research is focused on understanding the ecology of bioluminescent bays and understanding the creature that makes the water glow, a dinoflagellate called Pyrodinium bahamense.

After Juan collects water samples, he leaves them in handmade nets for a 24-hour incubation period. Then he will collect them for further examination.

The organism’s affect is clear. Alvarez likened it to “a party with a lot of fireflies.” What remains unclear is why Pyrodinium bahamense is so abundant in certain Puerto Rican lagoons but not in others, and Alvarez made that the focus of his research.

The fate of Pyrodinium bahamense and ecology of the bioluminescent lagoons ties directly to Puerto Rico’s economy. The lagoons, a popular tourist destination, represent an important income source for families there, Alvarez said. The more scientists like him can understand how they work, the easier it can be for the archipelago to manage the lagoons and keep that tourism industry viable.

Alvarez can’t be certain how much Hurricane Maria affected the bioluminescent bays.

He knows different environmental conditions, including heavy precipitation, can change the population of Pyrodinium bahamense in the lagoons.

“When it comes to hurricanes, it’s a bit more complicated,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of data on the impact of hurricanes on these systems and the population.”

It’s possible the force of the storm could have washed the organism out of the system to the ocean, or that, when conditions worsened, it went into a dormant state in the sediments. With years of data sets, Alvarez plans to do some comparison studies of the system before and after Maria.

“There can be a lot of factors that happened or changed after the hurricane. Hopefully we get to capture some of that,” Alvarez said.

Having grown up in Puerto Rico, Alvarez has always had a personal connection with his research and a devastating hurricane only strengthened his resolve.

Pierson said having a connection where you know the people in the community makes a big difference in keeping a scientist focused and engaged, even in cases like Alvarez’s when he can’t always be near his research subject.

Alvarez never feels too far from his research, even when he’s hundreds of miles from the bioluminescent bays. Because the bays are a well-known tourist destination, it’s easy to bring them up in conversation and he has always loved how easily he can engage people in his science and takes pride in sharing about his work to conserve them.

“It feels like giving back, giving back to my people, giving back to the place I grew up,” he said. “Not a lot of people have this opportunity, but I get to do research in my backyard.”

Juan is working to understand why Pyrodinium bahamense is more abundant in some bays than others. Because of its abundance there, Mosquito Bay (pictured) on Vieques, an island of Puerto Rico, is a popular tourist destination.