Physical Landscapes

The natural environment forms the foundation upon which all human societies depend for their survival. This is not to say that nature determines the way people live within a particular natural setting. To the contrary, a people’s culture, or their way of life, is determined by human ingenuity—what they have learned and are able to do. Much of human progress, in fact, has been marked by people learning to do things in environments that would suggest such activities were not possible.

What nature does is present an array of options to which a people must culturally adapt if they are to survive. The environment also presents options in terms of natural resources—things that people can use to their advantage. Finally, humans modify the environments in which they live in numerous ways, some good and others bad. Think for a moment about the area in which you live. How have humans culturally adapted to the environment? For example, is there artificial heating or cooling, farming or grazing of livestock, or the mining of resources? In what way are the natural elements—water, soil, vegetation, animal life, minerals, and so forth—used to human advantage? Finally, how has the natural environment in your area been changed by human activity? Hispaniola, of which the Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds, is a tropical island. (Tropical is defined solely on the basis of temperature. A tropical location is one in which the average temperature of the coolest month is above 64.4°F [18°C].) Here, temperatures change very little from season to season, and frost is unknown other than at the highest mountain elevations. Under natural conditions, vegetation consists of dense tropical rain forest or, in areas of seasonal precipitation, savanna grasslands with interspersed stands of palms and other drought-resistant trees. Because of large amounts of precipitation, surface water is plentiful and tropical soils are heavily leached (emptied) of nutrients by heavy rains and are generally poor. The exception is in those locations where soils are alluvial in origin; that is, the soil and its materials have been picked up and deposited over time by flowing water, as in a valley or on a coastal plain.

The environment of the Dominican Republic offers few serious challenges to human habitation. Weather is warm and moist; valley and coastal plain soils are adequate; woodlands abound in upland areas; there are some useful mineral resources; fresh water is abundant; and the island is surrounded by the sea and its bounty. These same conditions are what attracted the first settlers. On Hispaniola, man-made changes to the various natural elements have been damaging in many ways. In the Dominican Republic, however, the natural environment has not been devastated to the degree it has in Haiti. Still, its landscape shows the negative results of human activity, particularly in terms of deforestation, the widespread extinction of native fauna, and soil erosion.

LAND FEATURES

Land features of the Dominican Republic can be described in three words: mountains, valleys, and plains. Approximately one-half of the country is upland terrain that supports little economic activity, few communities, and a low rural population density. Access is limited by few and poor transportation linkages. The great majority of human settlement, transportation networks, agriculture, manufacturing, and other economic activities are located in lowland valleys and plains. In mountainous areas, temperatures are cooler at high elevations, and in a tropical environment, uplands afford a healthier and more pleasant environment. In a poor country such as the Dominican Republic, however, little money is available to build costly roads to provide access to rugged mountainous areas. Therefore, only recently has the country been able to begin developing the tourist potential of its highlands.

Highlands

The Dominican Republic has five major mountain ranges and several smaller upland areas that run in a general northwest to southeast direction. In the northwest, the Cordillera Septentrional (Northern Mountain Range) hugs the coast. It extends from near the Haitian border to the Samana Peninsula. To the east, the Cordillera Oriental (Eastern Mountain Range) also parallels the country’s northeastern coast. Together, these mountains form a barrier to the prevailing northeast trade winds. As the winds blow upslope, they release much of their moisture on the windward side of the uplands. This condition contributes to lush tropical landscapes in many locations along the northern coast.

Inland, occupying the west central portion of the country, is the towering Cordillera Central (Central Mountain Range). These mountains form the backbone of Haiti and extend eastward into the Dominican Republic. Not only is the Cordillera Central the highest range in the Dominican Republic, but it is the highest in all the West Indies. Pico Duarte, at 10,417 feet (3,175 m), lies in the Cordillera Central range and is the highest island summit in the entire Caribbean region. Three other peaks in the range also reach a higher elevation than do any other mountains in the Caribbean. They are La Pelona (10,150 ft/3,094 m), La Rucilla (10,000 ft/3,049 m), and Pico Yaque (9,100 ft/2,760 m). The range is a major center of mining activity that includes nickel, iron, and gold production.

The Dominican Republic is home to sugar plantations, four major rivers, many lakes and lagoons, and five important mountain ranges. Although the climate year-round is tropical—earning it the nickname “the endless summer”—temperatures as low as 32ºF (0ºC) are possible in the mountains.

Two other mountain ranges are tucked away in the south-western corner of the Dominican Republic, south of the Cordillera Central and San Juan Valley. The Sierra de Neiba is the northernmost of the two ranges. To the south, across the Enriquillo Basin, is the Sierra de Bahoruco, which also extends eastward from Haiti. The Sierra de Bahoruco is largely uninhabited because of its inaccessibility. Roads skirt the mountains but do not cross the range. Because of their remoteness, the mountains have played an interesting historical role. After the arrival of Spaniards, ahados (rebellious Amerindians) sought refuge in their rugged terrain. Later, escaped slaves (tnaroons in English; cimarroties in Spanish) also found refuge in the mountainous region.

Valleys and Plains

Narrow valleys occupy the area lying between the various mountain ranges. The most important is the Cibao Valley, or “El Cibao,” which stretches between the northern and central mountain ranges. Here are  the country’s richest soils, most-productive agriculture, and second-largest city, Santiago. Between the Cordillera Central and Sierra de Neiba is the semiarid and less fertile San Juan Valley. Still farther south, between the Sierra de Neiba and Sierra de Bahoruco, is the Enriquillo Basin. This valley is unusual in several ways. First, much of it is below sea level. With an elevation of-151 feet (-46 m), it is the lowest spot in the entire Caribbean Basin. Second, it is one of the hottest, most arid, and most desertlike environments in the entire Caribbean region. Finally, Lake Enriquillo, which occupies the bottom of the depression, is the largest lake within the West Indies.

The largest plains area of the Dominican Republic, the Llano Costero del Caribe (Caribbean Coastal Plain) stretches along much of the south coast. Rural settlement is rather dense, and much of the region supports sugar plantations and savanna grasslands used for the grazing of cattle.

Other Land Features

Several islands lie off the Dominican coast. Saono Island faces Mona Passage off the southeastern tip of the country and is a national park. Smaller Beata Island lies off the southernmost tip of southwestern Dominican Republic. The country also has many splendid beaches, including pure white sands that are a tourist favorite.

WEATHER AND CLIMATE

First-time travelers to the Dominican Republic who expect to find the entire island a tropical paradise will be in for a surprise. Although the country is located in the tropical latitudes, roughly between 17 and 20 degrees north latitude its climate is surprisingly varied. The climate is tropical and sunny most of the time, but portions of the south coast are almost desertlike, making the air hot and sticky. In the mountains, temperatures are quite cool and pleasant—certainly colder than one would expect for a tropical isle.

Patterns and Conditions

Overall, the country experiences a seasonally wet-and-dry tropical climate. Temperatures change very little from month to month, but rainfall is sharply divided between rainy and dry seasons. Much of the time it is very muggy because of the high humidity, which makes the air feel warmer than it really is. Several factors account for weather patterns in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean basin. Although the Dominican Republic is your typical tropical paradise, with lots of sun and very few clouds, the weather can be complicated at times based on location. Also, in the Caribbean, the seasons are marked by differences in rainfall rather than temperature.

As is true throughout the Caribbean region, precipitation is seasonal. The wet season occurs during the high sun season. During the low sun period, conditions are quite dry. May through October is the rainy season, with November through April being the driest period. On average, the country receives about 50 to 60 inches (127 to 152 centimeters) of rainfall annually. But in a mountainous land such as the Dominican Republic, “average” conditions mean little. On the windward (wind-facing) northeastern mountain slopes, more than 100 inches (2,500 mm) of rain fall annually in some locations. The moisture contributes to lush tropical vegetation and a tropical landscape that has not been disturbed by human settlement. On the rain-shadow (drier, downwind) side of the various mountain ranges, conditions are quite dry. Some locations, particularly along the country’s southwestern border with Haiti, receive a scant 25 to 30 inches (63.5 to 76.2 cm) of rainfall each year.

Because of its insular (island) condition, extremely hot or cold temperatures do not occur in the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean is a region bathed by the almost constantly blowing northeast trade winds, which have a cooling effect identical to what happens when one is in front of a fan on a hot day. In terms of wind and precipitation, the Dominican Republic lies squarely in the path of tropical storms. Hurricanes are rather frequent and often violent as they sweep across the island.

Weather Conditions

Weather is the day-to-day condition of the atmosphere; it is what is happening in terms of temperature, humidity, precipitation, and wind. For the country as a whole, the temperature averages around 77°F (25°C). In the lowland areas where nearly all Dominicans live, temperatures seldom rise above 90°F (32°C) or fall below 60°F (16°C). Only in the mountain towns does the temperature occasionally drop below freezing.

Conditions in the capital, Santo Domingo, are rather typical of the island’s lowland seasonal temperature patterns. In July and August, the warmest months of the year, daytime highs average 88°F (31°C) and lows 73°F (23°C). During January, the coolest month, high and low temperatures average a still-balmy 84°F (29°C) and pleasant 66°F (19°C). It is often said that “nighttime is the winter of the tropics.” This is because, in the tropics, day-tonight changes in temperature are much greater than those from season to season. Surprisingly, although tropical, the Dominican Republic and much of the rest of the Caribbean is cooler and more pleasant during the summer months than roughly one-half of the United States’s lower 48 states. What once was a winter vacation season is now virtually a year-round event.

PLANT AND ANIMAL LIFE

Human activity has drastically changed the flora and fauna of Hispaniola. In fact, today it is difficult to know what prehuman conditions were like on the island. Certainly much of the natural vegetation is long gone, as is most native wildlife. And domestic animals far outnumber native wildlife both in variety and numbers.

An estimated one-third of the country is covered by forests, mostly in the mountainous areas. High mountain slopes support a dense forest composed primarily of pine trees. In the northeast, rainy windward slopes and lowlands support a dense growth of tropical rain forests with 27 different climate zones, resulting in an incredible variety of vegetation. There are several species of trees, such as mahogany, logwood, and lignum vitae (also called guayacan). In the interior, under natural conditions, tall savanna grasses and scattered clusters of palm trees thrive. Drier areas of the country, in the south and southwest, support semiarid savanna and dryland scrub.

Along the coast, tidal mudflats support dense stands of mangrove with its maze of stiltlike roots. Mangrove forms a distinctive and valuable coastal ecosystem. Because of its elevated and tightly enmeshed root system, mangrove protects the coastal zone from erosion. This is particularly important in a place like the Dominican Republic, which is prone to tropical storms and their resultant raging surf. The roots also provide a protective environment for many marine organisms. They include oysters, shrimp, and lobsters, fingerlings (young fish), and a host of other life forms such as algae, sponges, and barnacles. Many of the organisms that thrive within the mangrove roots form an important link in the coastal food chain.

Before humans arrived on Hispaniola, the island was home to abundant and rather varied wildlife. More than two dozen land mammals were native to the island, including monkeys, sloths, hutia (a large rodent), and the very strange Hispaniolan solenodon (a very large shrew). Few places in the world, however, have experienced a higher rate of land species extinction during the historic period. When people and wildlife are in conflict, it seems that humans always win. Of the original species, only the hutia and solenodon remain. There are, of course, many birds, insects, and both fresh- and saltwater species. The island also is home to several nonvenomous snakes and alligators that are found in some rivers. Most animals, however, were introduced by Europeans. They include domesticated dogs, cats, and pigs, as well as rats and mongooses, the latter having been brought from India.

There is one wild animal that deserves special mention. The weird Hispaniolan solenodon is one of the world’s rarest and strangest living creatures. In appearance, the solenodon is quite small, about the size of a large rat. It has a stocky body, tapered claws, and a long snout somewhat resembling that of an anteater. But what makes it unusual is that although the solenodon is an insectivore, it is one of a very small number of venomous mammals. Venom is injected snakelike through grooved teeth. The shrewlike creature has endured for more than 75 million years, but scientists fear that it is now on the verge of extinction. The strange creature has all but disappeared from neighboring Haiti, but a small population continues to exist in the Dominican Republic. Efforts are now being made to ensure its survival.

WATER FEATURES

Several dozen rivers drain the various Dominican uplands. The largest is the Yaque del Norte, which flows from east to west down the Cibao Valley and into Monte Cristi Bay in the country’s northwest corner. Other important streams include the Yuna, Ozana, and Artibonito. Several dams provide hydroelectric power.

The country’s largest inland water feature is Lake Enriquillo, a saltwater body that occupies the lowest part of the below-sea-level Enriquillo Basin. With dimensions of 9 to 12 miles (15 to 20 km) and covering an area of 102 square miles (265 sq km), Enriquillo is the largest lake in the West Indies. Other sizeable lakes include Laguna de Rincon (also called Cabral), the country’s largest freshwater lagoon, and Laguna de Oviedo, a brackish lagoon. Both lagoons are located in national parks and both feature a variety of birds, including herons and flamingos, native turtles, and other wildlife.

NATURAL HAZARDS

Because the Dominican Republic lies in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane belt, June through November is a dangerous time for the citizens of the country. This is called hurricane season, and September is usually the most active month for hurricanes in the Caribbean. A hurricane is a tropical storm with winds in excess of 74 miles per hour (119 km per hour). In addition to damaging winds, such storms often are accompanied by torrential rains. Along coasts, storm surges—wind-pushed walls of water—can cause severe flooding and extensive damage to coastal structures and fields.

Due to these severe storms, the Dominican Republic experiences periodic flooding but also—at the opposite extreme — occasional droughts. These treacherous storms, which move in a generally east-to-west direction across the Atlantic, have struck the country on numerous occasions, often with devastating results. In May 2004, more than 20 inches (50.8 cm) of rain fell over a period of several days. Particularly heavy rainfall occurred in the southwestern mountainous region of the country. Several hundred people lost their lives as a result of flash flooding and mudslides. Crops and transportation infrastructure, such as bridges and roadways, were washed away. Along with death and destruction, hurricanes can bring economic ruin. In the Dominican Republic, much of the housing, particularly in rural areas, is quite flimsy. Structures are not able to withstand hurricane-force winds. Sugarcane and palm trees are extremely vulnerable to high winds and are easily destroyed. Storm-related flooding causes extensive damage, as do mudslides that can destroy buildings, roadways, and fields. Several storms in particular have devastated the Dominican Republic.

In 1930, the island of Hispaniola was struck by one of the most deadly hurricanes on record. Hurricane San Zenon hit the Dominican Republic with winds of up to 150 miles per hour (240 km per hr). More than 8,000 people lost their lives, including some 2,000 fatalities in Santo Domingo alone. About half of the capital city was destroyed. Many decades later, this violent storm still ranks as the fifth deadliest ever to strike the Caribbean.

Hurricane David struck the country with incredible force in 1979. Winds were clocked at 175 mph (280 km per hr), which made David a rare Category 5 hurricane. Nearly 1,000 lives were lost in the Dominican Republic and 70 percent of the country’s crops were wiped out by the storm’s fury. In 1998, Hurricane Georges raked the Caribbean and made a direct hit on the Dominican Republic. The storm’s toll was extraordinary. Winds exceeded 120 miles per hour (195 km per hr) at times, and up to 40 inches (101.6 cm) of rain fell on portions of the country. Rivers overflowed their banks, flooding many cities, rural homes, and fields. When the storm passed, 438 people were confirmed dead or missing; 500,000 Dominicans were injured; and more than 155,000 people were left homeless, including 10 percent of the population of Santo Domingo. Trees were snapped or uprooted, and power lines were down, resulting in a complete power blackout throughout the country. Mudslides covered miles of roadway, and 70 percent of the country’s bridges were destroyed, resulting in a massive loss of the country’s transportation infrastructure. Some mountain communities were cut off from the outside world for weeks. Ninety percent of all plantations were destroyed, and the crop loss ran well over 50 percent. Some estimates placed the direct economic loss to the island at more than $6 billion. The long-term losses, such as those from a huge drop in tourist revenue, were much greater.

A TROPICAL PARADISE

Generally speaking, the natural environment poses few obstacles and offers numerous opportunities to the people of the Dominican Republic. The terrain offers many developmental options, ranging from good farmland to cool, mountainous landscapes. The coastal zone, with sun, sand, and surf, is appealing. Because the country is on the margin of the tropics, neither temperatures nor precipitation are extreme. The developmental problems that the Dominicans have faced are more the result of human failure than of environmental challenges or limitations.