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Forests can recover incredibly quickly after cyclones and hurricanes

In March 2015, the Pacific island of Tanna in Vanuatu and its lush, tropical forests faced the wrath of Cyclone Pam, one of the most powerful cyclones ever recorded, with winds reaching a devastating 165 mph.

The cyclone’s impact was a significant test of resilience for the island’s forests, which play a crucial role in the lives of the local communities.

New research spearheaded by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, in collaboration with The New York Botanical Garden, the University of the South Pacific, and Vanuatu’s forestry authorities, offers hope and valuable insights into the forests’ astonishing recovery and resilience.

Studying how forests recover after cyclones

The study meticulously examined the aftermath and recovery process of Tanna’s forests over five years, documenting a surprisingly swift and robust regeneration.

“Compared to cyclones on other Pacific Islands, Pam caused relatively low levels of severe damage to Tanna’s trees. In addition, there was high resprouting, widespread recruitment of most tree species present, and basically no spread of invasive species,” stated Professor Tamara Ticktin of UH Mānoa’s School of Life Sciences, the lead author of the research.

This resilience is notably counterintuitive, given the common post-cyclone proliferation of invasive species on Pacific Islands.

The research attributes this resilience to a combination of Tanna’s historical cyclone frequency, which may have fostered the abundance of resilient species, and the island’s customary stewardship practices.

These practices, deeply embedded in the local culture, promote a diversity of tree species, life histories, and life stages, thereby enhancing the forests’ natural recovery mechanisms.

Cultivating resilience: The role of stewardship

Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., an ethnobotanist and co-author of the study, further elaborates on the island’s stewardship practices, highlighting the importance of a diverse range of species for food, medicines, and building materials.

“Customary stewardship involves management practices that enhance the survival and reproduction of these species,” he explains, shedding light on the vital role of human interaction in forest survival and resilience.

Jean-Pascal Wahe from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre shared insights into practical stewardship actions, such as weeding around native tree species and planting them after a cyclone, which can significantly aid in regeneration while keeping weedy understory species at bay.

Lessons from the land

However, the study also focused on the vulnerability of forests previously subjected to cattle and pig grazing, which showed slower recovery rates and heightened susceptibility to future cyclones.

This finding stresses the importance of forest management and stewardship in bolstering resilience against climate change.

Senior author Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., who has spent two decades studying the plants of Vanuatu, expressed a dual sense of terror and awe in experiencing Cyclone Pam’s fury and the subsequent recovery of the forests.

“As the world comes to grips with more frequent extreme weather events, our work suggests that the right kind of human interaction can play a significant role in the survival of forests,” he concludes, offering a message of hope and a call to action for communities worldwide facing similar environmental challenges.

Forests, cyclones, and climate change

In summary, the remarkable recovery of Tanna’s forests post-Cyclone Pam underscores a vital lesson. Proactive human stewardship and effective forest management significantly bolster resilience against climate change’s harsh realities.

This study, led by an international team of researchers, highlights the low damage and high regenerative capacity of Tanna’s forests and celebrates the island’s time-honored stewardship practices.

These practices, which nurture a diverse and resilient ecosystem, offer a blueprint for communities worldwide.

As we face increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the insights from Tanna’s forests illuminate a path forward, demonstrating that harmonious human interaction with nature can play a crucial role in safeguarding our planet’s future.

More about Cyclone Pam

In March 2015, Cyclone Pam emerged as one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded in the South Pacific. This category 5 storm left a trail of destruction across several Pacific Island nations, with Vanuatu bearing the brunt of its fury.

The cyclone showcased the devastating potential of natural disasters and highlighted the urgent need for effective disaster preparedness and response strategies in vulnerable regions.

Formation and path

Cyclone Pam developed in early March 2015, near the Solomon Islands. It quickly intensified, reaching category 5 status on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale as it approached Vanuatu.

With sustained winds exceeding 250 kilometers per hour (155 miles per hour), Pam made a direct hit on Vanuatu on March 13, causing widespread devastation.

Impact on Vanuatu

The impact of Cyclone Pam on Vanuatu was catastrophic. The storm razed homes, uprooted trees, and triggered landslides, leaving a significant portion of the population homeless.

Essential infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and communication networks, suffered extensive damage, complicating rescue and recovery efforts. The capital city of Port Vila was among the hardest-hit areas, with reports indicating that up to 90% of its buildings sustained damage.

Humanitarian response

The international community swiftly mobilized to provide assistance to Cyclone Pam’s victims. Aid agencies, governments, and volunteers coordinated efforts to deliver food, water, and medical supplies to the affected areas.

Shelter kits and temporary housing solutions were also provided to those who had lost their homes. Despite these efforts, the scale of the disaster posed significant challenges to relief operations, underscoring the importance of building resilience in disaster-prone regions.

Lessons learned

Cyclone Pam served as a stark reminder of the vulnerability of Pacific Island nations to natural disasters. It highlighted the need for improved disaster preparedness, including early warning systems, infrastructure development, and community education.

The cyclone also underscored the importance of international cooperation and solidarity in the face of global challenges posed by climate change and natural disasters.

Implications and future study

Cyclone Pam will be remembered as one of the most powerful storms to ever strike the South Pacific. Its legacy, however, extends beyond the destruction it wrought.

The disaster prompted a reevaluation of disaster preparedness and response strategies, emphasizing the need for resilience and cooperation in the face of increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters.

As the world grapples with the impacts of climate change, the lessons learned from Cyclone Pam will remain relevant for years to come.

The full study was published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.


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