The surprising benefits of destructive windstorms for forest health

What happens when a tree falls in the forest? Philosophically, one could argue that if no one is around to listen, it’s a moot point. But with the number of storms ripping through cottage country, leaving toppled trees and flattened forests in their wake, perhaps there’s a silver lining in knowing that ecologically, fallen trees catalyze important cycles, create a more diverse forest, and play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem. Here are three ways this can happen:

Deadwood: Andrew Almas, an urban forester and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, explains that “deadwood is an extremely crucial component of retaining biodiversity.” Many organisms depend on decaying wood—from the beetles that colonize a log soon after it falls to the ants, spiders, and amphibians that follow, he says. These critters attract birds and small mammals seeking a meal. 

Nurse logs: Almas adds that some plants and fungi also rely on nurse logs—fallen trees that provide a fertile microbiome that supports new life such as mosses and saplings of yellow birch and eastern hemlock

Pit-and-mound topography: Other species thrive where the soil topography has been changed by upturned tree roots, he says. When a large tree’s roots are yanked from the ground, they bring dirt with them, creating a mound of moist, decomposing matter, Almas explains. Plus, down below, left in the place where the roots once stood, is a mineral-rich pit where other trees, like Ontario’s eastern white pine, can germinate. “Together, the pits and the mounds give the forest floor a rugged appearance and provide a great diversity of drier and wetter habitats,” he says. More diverse habitats makes for a wider array of plants, insects, and birds.

In the forest, Almas says, a fallen log can take 200 years to decay, cycling nutrients and providing habitat long-term. But in urban areas, logs and branches are typically removed in the name of landscaping and safety, leading to reduced biodiversity and a lack of soil enrichment and mixing. 

This is a problem in all urban areas, Almas says, but especially in wealthy neighbourhoods. He points to a 2020 study from Krakow, Poland, that found as property values rise, the amount of deadwood in the area decreases. More landscaping and tree maintenance are happening in these locations, so “you get this sort of sterilization of the landscape which is interesting because rich properties are often associated with leafy areas,” Almas says.

Whether in urban areas or at the cottage, property owners can choose to maintain valuable habitats and build biodiversity. This is especially true in cottage country because the pressures of suburban lawn aesthetics don’t apply, Almas adds. The goal is to create a rugged oasis, so retaining deadwood is acceptable—even desirable, considering it will lead to increased birdsong and wildlife sightings, he says. So once any hazards are dealt with, cottagers concerned about post-storm tidying can trade their chainsaws and and wood chippers for binoculars and a bird-watching handbook.

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