By Amber Dance
Forests are resilient, but researchers wonder if climate change will outpace their adaptations.
Trees bowed to 45-degree angles and flying leaves crisscrossed the sky as Hurricane Florence ravaged North Carolina’s coast and inland regions in mid-September 2018. The storm, which peaked as a Category 4 hurricane before making landfall near Wilmington as a Category 1, deluged parts of the state with nearly three feet of rain. It stripped the leaves off black walnuts, crape myrtles, and their entwining wisterias, especially on the north and northeast sides of the trees, which bore the full brunt of the 100-plus-mile-per-hour wind gusts. An estimated 1.25 million acres of timber, valued at nearly $70 million, suffered varying degrees of damage.
Whoppers like Florence are a reality that North Carolina—not to mention the rest of the Eastern seaboard and the Caribbean—may have to get used to in the near future. Historically, a given location might only see such destructive hurricanes every few decades. But with global temperatures on the rise, the risk that a fledgling storm system will grow to “major” status, defined as category 3 and above, is likely to climb. Warming oceans mean more water vapor in the air, and that vapor is what fuels the storms. “One of the signals that we expect from climate change is that the strongest hurricanes will get stronger,” says Gary Lackmann, an atmospheric scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
What does that mean for trees? The scene in the woods after Florence was one of seeming devastation. In every direction, trees, branches, and brush littered the ground. Yet just a few weeks after the storm, the stripped trees sprouted fresh leaves and flowers. It may have been autumn, but the trees already had leaf and flower buds in waiting for the upcoming spring, explains Jim Slye, assistant regional forester with the state forest service in Goldsboro. Re-leafing after storms helps keep the trees’ circulation going, and flowering allows trees to drop seeds in case they end up succumbing to storm damage. The trees won’t necessarily die, though; tree ring studies make it clear that many survived past storms.