Cyclone Vardah’s Casualty: Trees

fallen, trees, cyclone, hudhud
(Image: Indian Navy/ Creative Commons) Fallen trees after cyclone Hudhud
An oft-overlooked casualty of India's natural disasters are its trees - 12,000 of which were lost due to hurricane Vardah alone.

Every year, Chennai is flooded in the months of October to December. The city, which relies primarily on the North East monsoons for almost 48 percent of its rainfall, is inundated by floodwater and the National Disaster Response Force is usually called in to help.

This year, cyclone Vardah made its landing on December 12, taking ten lives before weakening. The largest loss of life was that of the cities’ trees – over 12000 trees were uprooted by winds as strong as 120 kmph.

Perhaps more predictable than the extreme weather is the aversion to a permanent solution to the problem. As cities continue to grow without restraint, their ecosystems pay the toll. Chennai has among the lowest areas under green cover in the country, at 24 square kilometers . To put this into context, Delhi has 180, Bangalore 97 and Hyderabad 88.4.

With this in mind, the loss of 12,000 is no small matter. You’d imagine that illegal urban felling of trees would dwarf this number – but it takes up about 1,500 trees a year in Chennai. It could be worse. Hurricane Hudhud in 2014 stripped Vishakapatnam of up to 80% of its tree cover.

Some experts suggest the fallen trees could be non-native species, unaccustomed to Chennai’s ways.

tree, being, cut
(Image: 7MB) Tree felling

On Twitter, Chennai residents bemoaned the loss of the cities’ decades-old trees. Some made grim forecasts for the resultant summer heat. Ironically it took the strike of cyclone, and the sight of fallen trees across Chennai’s wide boulevards, to provoke the description that “Chennai looks like a forest” on Twitter.

The predictability of cyclones has gone up over the years, helping drastically reduce the death toll from such events since 1999. This has much to do with the efforts of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), whose prediction models have improved greatly over the years. Bishwajit Mukhopadhyay, a scientist at the IMD, says:

Earlier we were telling about landfall only 48 hours in advance, but now we tell about 72 hours in advance…the movement, the landfall, even the time when it hit, was pretty accurate.

Trees can play an important role in safeguarding cities from extreme weather. Their roots hold the soil together and prevent erosion. Mangroves in particular can slow down the approaching winds and water spray. However, picking the right tree for the job is important, as conditions vary in every region. What storms like Vardah have shown us is that trees in our cities are no longer able to survive the excesses of both man and nature.

Says Marianne De Nazareth, a science and environment journalist from Bangalore:

Within the urban sphere, these trees have their roots lobbed off on one side, to make roads and infrastructure. The tree needs its root section to be able to stand and hold itself. If one side has been lobbed off it is not stable. In Bangalore, I’ve seen a lot of trees fall, and that’s how I noticed this.

Unless firmly secured at the roots, trees are vulnerable to heavy winds. They topple, taking roads, telephone wires and potentially lives with them. The impact is immediate and far-reaching – roads are blocked until municipal authorities can clear them, and the area will become that much hotter in the coming summer for want of trees. Meanwhile, the cities’ birds lose what homes they struggled to find amidst the concrete jungle.

While the link between climate change and cyclones is yet to be made concrete, coastal cities like Chennai, Mumbai and Vishakapatnam must reconcile themselves with the inevitability of natural disasters. A three feet rise in sea levels is now a certainty, with floods and droughts also expected as a result of rise in global temperatures.

Vineet Kumar, program officer of climate change at the Centre for Science and Environment, says:

We can say for sure that because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, there is an increase in the extreme weather effects like floods, droughts and heat waves. As of now, our understanding of climate change’s impact on cyclones is limited.

With every such disaster, the people of Chennai rise up to help each other out of the rubble. Governments tried to improve their responsiveness. Every December, they fight through another season of heavy rains and flooded streets. Nobody knows whether the cyclones will get worse with time, not even climate change scientists, as Vineet points out, “It [climate change] should have an impact, but what kind of impact it could have, whether its intensity will increase in future, is the question.”

One thing they can do for next time is prepare the city for the next onslaught. As actor Prasanna tweeted, it’s time to make Chennai breathe again.


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