New tree saplings in the Heart of England Forest c. Charlotte Doran Davies

Harvey, Irma, Lee, Maria, Nate and Ophelia – the benign names given to some of the most catastrophic hurricanes to have struck the Caribbean and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States this year, wreaking havoc upon all in their path and leaving behind a trail of destruction and broken lives.

The UK has also seen its fair share of the chaos associated with increases in extreme weather activity, and often catches the ‘tail end’ of the storms. In late September of this year, as Hurricane Maria began to decay and turned north out of the tropical waters, Scotland bore the brunt of its residual force in the shape of strong winds and torrential rain. Those with longer memories will recall the Great Storm of 1987, when Britain’s worst weather ‘event’ since 1703 resulted in winds of up to 115 mph and led to the loss of 18 lives and the uprooting of up to 15 million trees. Planting trees to replace these losses is essential for a multitude of reasons, not least to provide food and shelter for a vast array of wildlife, but perhaps most importantly to try and counteract some of our own human activity that is playing into the hands of these tumultuous storms.

Man reaps the whirlwind

Of course, hurricanes are not a new phenomenon, but evidence is mounting that illustrates their level of intensity is growing and that humans are contributing to this. Science shows that climate change caused by under-regulated production of carbon – a by-product of the fossil fuel burning industry – is now playing its part. NASA estimates that the global mean temperature is one degree warmer than it was in 1880. It may not sound a lot, but when the seas are warmer, hurricanes are more powerful.
Hurricanes form over tropical waters in areas with high humidity and warmer sea temperatures, notably in ’Hurricane Alley’ – an area of warmer waters stretching from the Atlantic coast of North Africa to the east coast of Central America and the Gulf Coast of the central states. Deriving much of their power from these waters, if the sea temperature is cooler, the hurricanes’ power weakens. However, if the waters are warmer, a rapid increase in the power of hurricanes can occur. With increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere degrading the ozone layer that protects the sea from the sun’s heat, warmer waters have led to increased intensity in hurricanes.

The crucial role of trees

One of the most efficient ways to soak up carbon dioxide is to plant trees.

In an increasingly urbanised country, our native woodland under threat and Britain with one of the lowest percentages of tree cover in Europe, the large-scale tree planting and creation of new native broadleaved woodland in the Heart of England Forest could not be more important. Not only is our Forest helping to combat climate change but is also a perfectly positioned lung for Birmingham and the West Midlands, providing a much-needed green corridor for wildlife and people alike.

Helping wildlife victims

While media attention naturally focuses on the human toll, wildlife also counts the cost of hurricanes. Although plant and wildlife species show admirable resilience, often bouncing back more quickly than their human neighbours, they, too, need woodland to survive. Many species are reluctant to move across areas with no trees, and when field trees or hedgerows are destroyed, they can be deprived of essential habitats and the means of moving around safe from predators. Trees also provide shelter from the sun in summer and from inclement weather in the winter, and mitigate against flood risks.
So, next time the TV news is full of smashed homes and displaced communities in another far-flung corner of the world, take some comfort from the fact that your support for the Heart of England Forest is playing an important part in trying to reduce the effects of these lethal weather episodes.

If you’d like to help plant new native woodland trees in the Heart of England Forest, and at the same time celebrate the start of National Tree Week, then please come along to our Volunteer Saturday on 25th November. For more information email volunteer@hoef.co.uk. We’d love you to join us.