Trees and Natural Disasters
The role that trees play in our society and environment is often difficult for most people to grasp…until they are gone. Natural disasters and urban development have the ability to completely uproot a healthy and productive community forest and remove all of the easily perceived, as well as less obvious, benefits that they provide. Enhancing neighborhood aesthetics and creating shade and cooling are benefits that are easily felt and understood. Many others are not nearly as easy to comprehend. These include, but are not limited to, cleaning the air that we breathe and the water that we drink and, in turn, improving public health (see the Analyzing Relationships of Trees and Sustainability section in our recent tree canopy assessment of West Palm Beach, Florida), reducing flooding through stormwater absorption, providing wildlife habitat, and reducing energy use and costs. Most of us go about our day-to-day lives without thinking of these things. With the world’s human population continuing to grow and expand and increasingly destructive natural disasters occurring more frequently, more and more trees are being lost and the impacts of that loss are being felt by members of affected communities.
The Panhandle of Florida experienced a category 5 hurricane, Michael, in October of 2018. Communities such as Panama City lost many of their trees, nearly 1,000,000 in Panama City. It’s estimated that 80% of all trees in the entire Bay County were destroyed by the strong rain and winds of Hurricane Michael. The pre- and post-hurricane images are stark and show large areas of destruction.
Many communities went from being densely forested before the storm to having little or no tree canopy in just a matter of days. According to The Project Canopy, a local non-profit working to restore the lost canopy in Bay County, nearly 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere when these trees were knocked down. Half a year later, the National Weather Service in Tallahassee has been looking at satellite imagery to measure the impacts that this destruction has caused. They have shown that areas with nearly complete loss of their canopy are experiencing higher temperatures than surrounding, less affected areas because there is little tree canopy to absorb the solar radiation that heats the Earth. Local officials are also warning of a threat of wildfire with a large number of trees on the ground. And if that wasn’t enough, there is also now a serious threat of flooding without trees to absorb stormwater runoff and because of all the downed debris that can create dams and block the runoff.
Panama City, Florida – March, 2015
Panama City, Florida – November, 2018
Several organizations are now working to replace the trees that were lost in order to rebuild the communities and regain the benefits that the trees were providing. In Panama City, the ReTree PC initiative has set a goal of planting 100,000 trees by 2025. The Project Canopy is also working to replant and will be using TreePlotter™ software by PlanIT Geo™. This software suite is utilized by private tree care firms, state and local government, universities, and nonprofit associations to perform inventories, outreach, reporting, and work orders in the field of urban and community forestry.