“Hurricanes Katrina and Rita produced the largest single forestry disaster on record in the US”

Satellite imaging has revealed that hurricanes Katrina and Rita produced the largest single forestry disaster on record in the US – an essentially unreported ecological catastrophe that killed or damaged about 320 million trees in Mississippi and Louisiana.The die-off, caused initially by wind and later by weeks of pooling of stagnant water, was so massive that researchers say it will add significantly to the global greenhouse gas build-up. Ultimately it will put as much carbon from dying vegetation into the air as the rest of the nation’s forest takes out in a year of photosynthesis.

I had been wondering about this. Trees are basically waiting to exhale: yout cut one down, it dies, it releases the carbon dioxide that it had held as a living plant. Then, sure, you burn it and matter become worse. The logging, though, generates its own CO2 problem (I believe George Monbiot taught me that). I didn’t think it would come to 320 million trees, though.

To make matters worse:

… the drowning of so many trees has opened vast and often fragile tracts to several aggressive and fast-growing exotic species that are already squeezing out environmentally productive native species.

Efforts to limit the damage have been hindered by the ineffectiveness of a $US504 million ($569 million) federal program to help Gulf Coast landowners replant and fight the invasive species. Congress appropriated the money in 2005 and added to it this year, but officials concede it got off to a slow start and only $US70 million has been promised or dispensed so far. Local advocates blame bureaucratic hurdles and low compensation rates.

“This is the worst environmental disaster in the United States since the Exxon Valdez accident … and the greatest forest destruction in modern times,” said James Cummins, the executive director of the conservation group Wildlife Mississippi.

“It needs a really broad and aggressive response, and so far that just hasn’t happened.”

The lead author on the study (forthcoming in Science) is Jeffrey Chambers. His website contains some discussion of the work:

GIS Katrina pic

Dramatic variability in Katrina-induced mortality in the Pearl River basin. Cypress-tupelo swamp forests in swales and other low-lying sites experienced little damage whereas adjacent bottomland hardwood forest suffered extremely high mortality (high resolution aerial imagery from LSU’s GIS Information Clearinghouse). Initial results from this project will be published in the 16 Nov 2007 issue of Science.

The Louisiana State University’s GIS site is pretty bloody impressive. With a 20Tb database, I imagine it’d want to be.

One wonders whether, with more information on the ecological consequences of the hurricanes still occurring (rather than the trees being considered a write-off), more/better attention/financial support will be given to the problem.

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