What’s Growing On: Tree Removal & Hurricane Season

Natural defects in a tree may not predict whether a tree will fall in strong winds from a landfalling tropical system.
Natural defects in a tree may not predict whether a tree will fall in strong winds from a landfalling tropical system.
Published: May. 22, 2023 at 11:27 AM EDT
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Ready or not, Hurricane Season is just 2 weeks away. And in a recent study at the University of Florida, the risk assessment of a tree being able to withstand hurricane force winds is being redesigned.

When assessing trees, arborists and tree companies normally exam visual defects to determine which trees pose an unacceptable risk of failure; meaning falling or uprooting.

And in the new study, UF/IFAS researchers surveyed 3 specific defects just 2 weeks after Hurricane Ian last September. The defects were branches that stick out beyond the rest of the canopy, trunks that split into 2 equal size stems, and multiple branches that connect to the trunk all at the same point.

These growth patterns are usually seen as weaknesses by tree care professionals, but very few studies have assessed if they are actually too weak to survive a storm; that is, until this most recent study. In past research similar defects never predicted failure.

Trees in Hillsborough County were going to be impacted by Hurricane Ian that initially had winds at landfall of over 150mph but by the time it reached inland areas, Ian’s strength had lessened to around 60mph. Speeds that you would expected a healthy, sound tree to be able to sustain.

Lead researcher Andrew Koeser with UF/IFAS Gul Coast Research tells us, “And when Ian hit it had hit us at tropical storm level winds, which is kind of like the sweet spot for this kind of research because it’s not too strong, you know Hurricane Andrew where nothing’s going to make it.”

The study was conducted in managed areas in a county park system, so the spacing of the trees and their care were similar to what you would see in a residential setting. These trees are also similar to what we have here in NCFL; including live oak, magnolias and elm trees.

The researchers surveyed over 1,500 trees and their findings were quite surprising.

“The surprise was just how little failure we had, you know I assumed thre would be a few branches breaking, a few trees splitting apart, but out of 1,500 some trees we didn’t have a single one fail with any of these defects.”; Koeser

This mirrors similar research in the Naples area by Koeser’s team after Hurricane Irma in 2017 where 75% of trees sustained no damage.

Despite this data, protecting against potential tree damage when a tropical storm or hurricane is approaching is still a crucial to limiting the extent of possible damage to your home and property.

These kind of storms do impact the area and in stronger winds will topple trees over which can be a danger to life and property.

Furthermore, some defects like dead branches and holes or cavities in tree trunks have been tied to tree failure in hurricanes. As well as a few others.

“Leans. If your tree was straight up and down and now it is going at an angle to the side, that tree is moving and that’s never a good sign and you want to have someone look at it especially if it’s leaning towards something you care about.”; Koeser.

The message is not to disregard tree trimming and removal ahead of hurricane season, but that the idea of what might be necessary to clear from your property is being refined.

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