Catastrophic wind damage to North American forests and the potential impact of climate change
Catastrophic winds from tornadoes and downbursts are a major cause of natural disturbance in forests of eastern North America, accounting for thousands of hectares of disturbed area annually. Wind disturbance shows substantial regional variation, decreasing from the mid-west to the east and from the south-east to New England. In terms of the relative importance among these types of storms, more forest damage results from tornadoes in the south-east and mid-west, while downbursts are the most important type of wind disturbance in the Great Lakes area. Downbursts vary widely in size, but large ones can damage thousands of hectares, while tornadoes are much smaller, seldom affecting more than several hundred hectares. Tornadoes cause the most severe wind disturbances. Site characteristics such as physiography, soil moisture, and soil depth; stand characteristics like density and canopy roughness; and tree characteristics such as size, species, rooting depth, and wood strength, are the factors most recognized as influencing damage patterns. The consequences of wind damage to forests, such as change in environmental conditions, density, size structure, species composition, and successional status, occur on both immediate (hours-to-days) and long-term (months-to-decades) time scales. Most wind disturbances result in the post-disturbance vegetation being comprised of surviving canopy trees, and varying amounts of sprouts, released understory stems, and new seedlings. Stand size structure is usually reduced, and successional status of a forest is often advanced. Diversity can be either increased or decreased, depending on the measure of abundance used to calculate diversity. Because tornadoes and downbursts are in part products of thermodynamic climatic circumstances, they may be affected by anticipated changes in climatic conditions as the 21st century progresses. However, the current understanding of tornado and downburst formation from supercell storms is very incomplete, and climate-change model predictions sufficiently coarse, that predictions of changes in frequency, size, intensity, or timing of these extreme events must be regarded as highly uncertain. Moreover, retrospective approaches that employ tree demography and dendrochronology require prohibitively large sample sizes to resolve details of the relationship between climate fluctuations and characteristics of these storms. To improve predictions of changes in the climatology of these storms, we need improved understanding of the genesis of tornadoes and downbursts within thunderstorms, and greater resolution in global climate models. To improve coping strategies, forest scientists can contribute by giving more attention to how various silvicultural actions influence stand and tree vulnerability. Finally, increased focus on the dynamics of forest recovery and regrowth may suggest management actions that can facilitate desired objectives after one of these unpredictable wind disturbances.