Stand and tree characteristics influence damage severity after a catastrophic hurricane disturbance.
Catastrophic wind disturbances can greatly impact the economic and ecological values of working forests worldwide. For example, Hurricane Michael caused severe economic damage in 2018 to commercial loblolly (Pinus taeda L.) and slash (Pinus elliotti Engelm.) planted pine stands in the southeastern U.S. This project examined the relative importance of prior management activities, stand characteristics, and soil and terrain attributes in predicting stand damage from a catastrophic hurricane event. We assembled data from land managers in coastal Alabama, the Florida panhandle, and South Georgia, on percent loss of trees after Hurricane Michael in over 400 stands, along with stand management history, and stand characteristics. Digital elevation models were utilized to determine terrain and hydrological characteristics of the landscape including aspect,channel distance, elevation, LS factor (slope and length steepness factor), slope angle, slope position, terrain ruggedness index, topographic wetness index, and wind exposition index. Random forest models were used to determine the relative accuracy of windspeed, management history, stand characteristics, and soil and terrain attributes in predicting stand damage. From the variables evaluated, stand density (as described by trees per acre), and tree height (as described by the average height of dominant and co-dominant trees) were among the most influential characteristics in predicting damage severity along with windspeed and linear distance from the coast. Stands with dominant heights > 14 m, trees per acre < 600 (trees per hectare < 1,483), and within 50 km of the coast were the most likely to experience severe damage. Topographic wetness index was the most influential terrain characteristic, with sands in wetter soils more likely to experience more severe damage. Recently thinned stands were slightly more vulnerable to severe damage. Results from this study can be used to develop vulnerability profiles for commercial pine stands in the coastal plain region in the southern U.S. region.