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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Column: Understanding why some trees live through hurricanes — and why others don’t

A storm like Irma destroys trees you thought were ageless pillars. Meanwhile, it skips over trees you thought would be sure goners.

It’s a real puzzler, and we can chalk it up to the mysteries of Mother Nature. Or we can try to understand it through science so we can divine which trees are the most likely to fall on utility lines and cut the power to your neighborhood.

The guy who wrote the book on Florida trees (actually two books — one for South Florida and one for North Florida) is on the case. Friday is Florida Arbor Day, but Andrew Koeser spends the whole year thinking about the big plants that get the widest attention when they fall.

His research at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) aims to figure out why a tree survives intact while others around it fall to pieces in the wind and rain.

Because Tampa is a national leader in urban forestry, it stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of such research. UF/IFAS Extension, the University of South Florida and the city of Tampa have combined to map out the tree canopy of the metropolitan area. We know more about what’s growing where in Tampa than we do about almost any other American city.

A lot of studies have been done on downed trees. Not much research has gone into what goes right — those trees that stubbornly stand through storms. After all, it’s no big emergency to study a tree that doesn’t fall, no?

But if we can figure out which species with which features are the most likely to survive the fury of a hurricane, we can prevent countless gallons of fuel for your generators, a weeklong "hurricane diet" of peanut butter sandwiches, and slowdowns on roads where the traffic signals aren’t working.

With information like this, university plant breeders could develop hurricane-hardy trees. Tree nurseries could get to work growing those trees that are less likely to take down power lines or fall across roads. City planners in Tampa could dispatch their crews to trim, cull and plant where it will do the most good.

Koeser’s discoveries could guide which trees the city plants, which trees should get priority for pre-hurricane trimming, and even where people might be imperiled by falling limbs.

That’s why public science is so important. It can save taxpayer dollars on debris removal. It can cut down the chances that your city will plant a bunch of trees that die quickly and siphon off more of your tax money for replanting. It’s an investment.

Tampa’s not the only place that thinks about trees, of course. Approximately 200 communities in Florida observe the state’s Arbor Day in some fashion.

It doesn’t take a hurricane for Floridians to appreciate at least a few of the 17 million acres of forested land in the state. If Florida’s forests were a state, they would rank above 10 states in size. More than 36,000 Floridians’ jobs depend directly on trees.

The University of Florida is hard at work detecting pests in Cuba that threaten our forests here. Its experts in the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation are dedicated to protecting forestry jobs and the aesthetics of our great state with science.

And people like Koeser are focused on the trees that matter most to you — the ones that can fall on your house, your car, or your power lines. Arbor Day is about how we can more deeply appreciate our trees.

We know that starts by keeping them healthy and upright. So have a happy Florida Arbor Day.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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