Long-term impact of hurricanes on forest markets and carbon storage

Hurricane Michael left forest stands within the impacted zones with a mix of live, standing dead, broken, and wind-thrown trees. USDA Forest Service photo by Jason Cooper.

Hurricanes have long-term impacts on forest markets and the welfare of landowners in areas hit the hardest. They also disrupt carbon storage processes in forests.

USDA Forest Service scientist Jesse Henderson recently published a study in Forest Policy and Economics that showed replanting trees after disasters like Hurricane Michael is the best way to foster forest market recovery and counteract the release of carbon.

Hurricane Michael was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall on the Florida panhandle in October 2018. In some places it looked as if every tree had snapped in two.

Hurricanes of this magnitude are relatively rare but becoming more common. Thus, little long-term data exist on their effects. Henderson used Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm that hit South Carolina in September 1989, as a surrogate to answer some long-term questions.

“Many groups, from state agencies to forest landowners and mill owners, were keenly interested in the economic impact of this event on the forest sector,” says Henderson. “We used actual data from both hurricanes and modeled different scenarios 60 years into the future to understand forest sector and carbon storage changes after the hurricanes.”

Henderson found that remotely sensed damage assessments from Hurricane Hugo were similar to damage estimates derived from Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) plot measurements. As remote sensing data are readily available and can be processed within weeks, this approach can speed up initial damage assessments in the future. FIA plot measurements are still critical to understanding the long-term ecological and economic impacts to tree species and forest stands.

Initially, mills were flooded with salvaged pine and hardwood timber — and prices decreased. But a year after Hurricane Michael, when downed pine and hardwood trees were too rotten or damaged to be salvaged, prices increased.

Carbon storage increased and markets recovered fastest when stands were replanted soon after damaged logs were removed. USDA Forest Service photo by Virginia McDaniel.

In severely damaged areas, landowners with standing timber were able to sell at higher prices due to the scarcity of timber. Consumers paid higher prices. Under high replanting and once supplies recovered – between 10-20 years – pulpwood prices returned to pre-hurricane levels.

Pine pulpwood markets recovered faster than pine sawtimber markets. Young trees can be harvested for pulp, but sawtimber requires more mature trees. It took up to 30 years for pine sawtimber markets to recover, and in some scenarios the price remained high.

Markets rebalanced the fastest when 100% of the forested areas were replanted. Carbon storage also increased fastest under this planting scenario. Models predicted, however, that less carbon will be stored in these hurricane damaged areas even 60 years into the future than in undamaged forests.

“It’s improbable to assume replanting of all forested areas,” says Henderson. “However, one scenario we did not test was the possibility that more areas were planted with trees. Afforestation could mitigate carbon loss more quickly and buffer forest markets in the future.”

Read the full article in Forest Policy and Economics.  

For more information, email Jesse Henderson at jesse.henderson2@usda.gov.

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