Impact of Hurrricane Juan on Nova Scotia's Woodlands

The character of province's forest can largely be attributed to the impact of natural phenomena such as hurricanes, fires or insects and diseases. This is not the first, nor will it be the last hurricane to plow its way through Nova Scotia. Hurricane Edna (1954), Hurricane Carol (1953), and the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, a few of storms that have caused significant changes to the character of today's forest.

Nova Scotia's forests generally regenerate very quickly -naturally. Openings created by the hurricanes half a century ago have regenerated to form many of maturing forest stands we have today. The patchy blown-down pattern of Hurricane Juan will again likely result in a patchwork of natural regeneration in areas opened up by the blown down timber. Where there are pockets blown down an unevenaged forest will develop, where there are large areas of blowdown a more evenaged forest will form.

Due to the helter-skelter pattern of blown down trees, salvage harvesting is both slow and dangerous. The sudden release of pinned down or blown over trees can result in very dangerous conditions for a chainsaw operator. Even the mechanical harvesters have a difficult time getting to the individual stems due to the jumbled mess of root systems and trees lying or leaning at various angles to the ground.

The impact of Hurricane Juan throughout central Nova Scotia has been significicant. Although some woodlot owners are yet to determine the full extent of damage within their woodlands, there are many examples where woodlot owners have cut large portions of their woodlots, literally flattened by the storm. The sudden blowdown and/or breakage of many hectares on the woodlots has resulted in unprecedented efforts to salvage the damaged timber. This has been disheartening for hundreds of woodlot owners who were wisely managing their lands for the long term. To assist land owners in assessing the damage to their woodlands the Department of Natural Resources has developed an image based map service that depicts the forest condition after Hurricane Juan.

Hurricane Juan Preliminary Assessment Map Service

Looking at forests from the 'big picture' perspective

Hurricanes are nature's way of speeding up succession

"We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot." - Leonardo DaVinci

Since Hurricane Juan hit Nova Scotia, much of the media attention has been given to the impact on towns, cities, farmers and sea faring activities and facilities. Although the extent of the damage is still being assessed, it is clear that in some areas, Juan has left a trail of destruction in forested areas in the central part of the province.

When woodlot owners first visited their woodlots after the storm one can only imagine their feelings of horror and despair that they would feel when confronting the damage inflicted. This would especially be the case if they had been actively managing their land, therefore increasing its multiple values over time. Thus far it seems that the hurricane touched down with something that has been described as "wind bombs" that completely flattened sections of forest and then in other nearby areas, much less was blown down.

Having flown some of the hurricane affected area I can appreciate more fully the extent of the damage. The birds eye view shows how the strong gusting winds blew down much of what was in its way in, more or less, from a south-southwestern direction. It blew down a few acres here and then a few trees there or even scattered individual trees, there seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to how the trees were blown. Of course there are many variables affecting how much areas are damaged. The tree species, height, crown size, soil type and depth, soil moisture, amount of foliage on the tree, exposure to wind, aspect, surrounding forest features and disturbance are some of the things that play a part.

However, there is nothing that prepares you for seeing the extent of the damage on the ground. Once you are struggling through the tangled mess of blown down spruce, fir, hemlock, pine, maple, poplar and other trees of all sizes, it hits home that this storm was like few others before it.

Those of us that are under 50 years of age, and perhaps others, do not have the experience of what forest devastation can be caused by serious hurricanes such as Edna approximately 50 years ago. Most people seem to agree that we did not expect anything remotely like the intensity and damage caused by Juan. With respect to hurricanes, we have been lulled into a sense of false security. However, if we had been listening to some climate experts, we would have realized that in terms of climate history, we were overdue for a "big blow."

Throughout time our planet and region has experienced periodic extreme weather events. According to a UNB thesis conducted by Dave Dwyer many years ago in which he analyzed the hurricanes and resulting forest blowdown over the last 320 years, our forests are to a large degree, a result of past hurricanes. Once a forest stand blows down due to strong storms, new young regeneration usually follows in a few short years. Dwyer was able to use the age of forest stands to connect them with the hurricane which provided the power to bring down the previous stand and therefore providing ideal habitat (nutrients, light and space) to grow.

The dates of the hurricanes that Dwyer highlighted as significant to our forest evolution include: 1635, 1676, 1717, 1723, 1798 (Sept. 25), 1821 (Sept. 1 - 4), 1869 (Oct. 3 - 5), 1873 (Aug. 24). According to the Dwyer report, during the period 1879 to 1953 there were reportedly 17 storms, all reaching hurricane intensity, which passed over or near Nova Scotia. The "Great Atlantic Hurricane" of Sept. 15, 1944 nearly duplicated the track of what had been previously the most destructive storm - the "Portland Gale" of 1898. Next, Hurricane Carol of Sept. 7, 1953 caused considerable forest damage in southwestern Nova Scotia. Finally, the last most destructive hurricane was Edna of Sept. 11 and 12, 1954 which caused widespread blowdown in the province.

Natural occurrences such as hurricanes, insect infestations, and forest fires have always played an integral role in forest succession. When the timber is no longer standing, it is an invitation for other pioneer plant species to move into the area. We are fortunate in Nova Scotia that most of the forest areas that are harvested by man or nature regenerate quickly with native trees and other plants that have adapted to the site and area for millennia.

Before people populated this world, forest fires, insects and storms would flatten millions of hectares globally every year. Here in North America, since European settlement, people continually improved their methods of preventing and extinguishing forest fires and minimizing impacts of insect infestation. As people have been building homes further out into the forest as urban sprawl continues, it has put more pressure on the forests as more is lost and exposed to forest fire potential. There are some preventative measures that can be taken to minimize damage potential for this type of development, but of course there is nothing that we can do to stop hurricanes.

We can however learn more about the impact of extreme weather events such as hurricanes on forests. The Natural Resource Centre in Middle Musquodoboit is developing a new program, entitled "Woodlots and Weather", aimed to help visitors to the Centre understand the role of natural events such as wind and forest fire in forest succession. This free program will also provide participants with an opportunity to safely view the results of Hurricane Juan on a typical woodlot under the direction of professional DNR education staff. Groups interested in registering for this program can contact the centre at NREC@gov.ns.ca or by phone at (902)384-3420. For more information, check out: Natural Resources Education Centre Web Site .

Due to the damage caused by the hurricane, there are new dangers that could be hazardous to those walking in the woods. For one thing, due to the large amount of blown down trees in the central part of the province, these areas do not look like they once did. In fact, many active woodlot owners who were very familiar with their woodlots have become lost on their own land due to the fact that the forest has changed its looks dramatically. The old landmarks, in some cases, are now gone.

The other new hazard is the danger posed by trees and branches that are leaning on other trees, have broken limbs, root systems or have been pinned down by falling trees. Crawling ones way through this mess is dangerous enough. If there is any amount of wind, it may be worthwhile getting out from under potential overhead hazards and hunt in an open area or in a young forest stand.
Don Cameron, Forester
Nov. 4, 2003