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Coping with the aftermath of storm Vaia in North-East Italy

by Silvia Abruscato, Gherardo Chirici, Giorgio Matteucci, and Davide Pettenella
On October 27-30th 2018, the storm Vaia hit North-eastern Italy with peak winds of 200 km/h, which compares to a very strong hurricane, and very relevant rainfall. Vaia has not only been the largest single windstorm event in recorded history causing serious damages to the forests in Italy. The storm was also a singular event that has raised unprecedented public attention because it hit some of the most beautiful and most productive forests in Italy located in the Dolomites Mountains, where several UNESCO world heritage sites full of history, culture, and traditions are located. Finally, Vaia caused enormous economic losses: the spruce and fir dominated mountain forests in the region are stocking twice the average biomass per hectare and their growth rates are also approximately double of the Italian average.
After the first shock and quick response to the damages, it became clear that a “multi-actor collaboration” is needed to develop a strategic approach to deal with the aftermath. Consequently, on February 8th 2019, a national congress was held in the Belluno province in the heart of the damaged area to discuss among the Italian scientific and civil community the impact, management and response perspectives after the Vaia storm. The conference was organized by Università di Padova – Dipartimento TESAF, Fondazione G. Angelini, Comune di Belluno, and SISEF – Società Italiana di Selvicoltura ed Ecologia Forestale. Around 600 participants and a large media visibility demonstrated the exceptionally strong interest in the case. Presentations and video are available here.
Challenges of forest management and -monitoring
As a consequence of the storm, the Forest Directorate in the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry policies and Tourism initiated an assessment of the damages in collaboration with local authorities and research centers, first and foremost the geoLAB (Laboratory of Forest Geomatics of the Department of Agriculture, Food, Environment and Forestry of the University of Florence). Vaia affected five local administrative authorities: the two Autonomous Provinces of Trento and Bolzano, the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Lombardy Regions. This has brought about 5 quite different levels of organization, political commitment and public investment (e.g. regarding the compensation rate to the forest owners to cover their harvesting costs) in dealing with the damages and the reconstruction, so it will be interesting to observe and compare 5 governance systems dealing with the same problems. Furthermore, in making a first comparison it is already obvious that a common market regulation policy under the coordination of a central authority would have been more than needed in order to control the flow of timber to the market and the reduction of prices.
Collapse of wood prices
The amount of damages poses a huge challenge for the Italian forest sector, because proper infrastructure and management capability to cope with the salvaged timber is missing. This refers to both an absence of stocking capacity and a lack of available experience for coordinating the sales of salvaged wood. Actually, in this moment, every forest owner (also municipalities) is behaving as a free rider. The wood prices have collapsed in the last three months from 80-90 euros/m³ to 10-20 euros/m³ and the market is now saturated as the amount of damaged industrial round wood is 7 times more than the normal quantity of raw material processed by Italian sawmills in one year. A large amount of wood has been sold abroad and will be processed by foreign companies, mainly located in Austria.
geoLAB was in charge to collect, aggregate and harmonize the information provided by the five local authorities that worked with their forest services through field surveys and analysing aerial data and satellite images. Several local Universities and research Institutions contributed for data acquisition, see Chirici G. et al. (submitted) for a full list of the involved personnel. The total land area affected by Vaia corresponds to 2 306 968 hectares involving 494 Municipalities. This area is approximately 60% forested. The first estimate of the forest area destroyed by Vaia is equal to 42,500 hectares, which corresponds to the surface area of the German City of Cologne and to 8.5 Mm³ of wood. Trentino Alto Adige and Veneto reported the major damage, followed by Lombardy and Friuli Venezia Giulia[1]. However, the total damaged area and volumes could be twice of the above estimates if we consider small damaged areas or single damaged trees which for the moment where not considered in the estimation because of the limited amount of information. For example in the period 30/10/2018 – 30/01/2019 the 50% of the affected area was not yet covered by a Sentinel-2 complete cloud free image (Chirici G. et al., submitted).

VAIA maps
Image: Percentage of forest damage in the municipalities affected by Vaia storm (by @Chirici G. et al. submitted)

 Collaboration and communication
The five region/provinces affected by the storm have established an active collaboration and dialogue during the realization of the report on the ‘Effect of Vaia storm in the Italian forests’ (in Italian only) and the Belluno Conference. However, the level of coordination between provinces/regions has started only recently and is thus still deficient and not coordinated enough.  Nevertheless, the unique impacts of storm Vaia and the Belluno Conference do offer a great opportunity to inform citizens about the real status of the region’s forests and provide a lot of crucial knowledge on the forest sector in Italy. Additionally, Region Veneto produced an innovative communication tool, an instant book for providing evidence of the damages to a broad public.
Prevention plans for the future
In times of changing climatic condition – e.g. rises of temperature and decreasing precipitation rates – we need to plan interventions for forest’s adaptation in the medium-long term. This includes multi-functional forest management and diversification of forest ecosystem. Furthermore, we consider it important to involve civil society when monitoring forest development and pest attacks. Educational activities in the forest, reconstruction of mountain pathways and small infrastructures are some of the activities in which trained volunteers can be involved.  As a condition, we require proper equipment and training in voluntary reconstruction work by civil society organizations to avoid accidents. Finally, the coordination by the central state authorities and at the international level is essential to implement the lesson learned, to share support and to face future catastrophic events.
It is our duty to work together in order to enhance the resilience and resistance of forests to disturbances, which will increase due to climate change (refer to Motta et al article, 2018). Only a multi-actor collaboration, including scientists, practitioners, policy makers, and civil society can face future challenges.

VAIA maps 2
Figure 3: forest area percentage on the total area per Municipality, random position of red dots per Municipality to represent the intensity of damages to forest ecosystem due to Vaia storm (1 dot = 10 ha of damage). Source: @Chirici G. et al submitted

[1] Data by regions: major damage in Trentino Alto Adige (around 18.000 hectares destroyed) and Veneto (around 12.000 hectares destroyed), followed by Lombardia and Friuli Venezia Giulia (around 4.000 hectares destroyed). Piemonte and Valle d’aosta report a marginal interest (less 1.000 hectars destroyed)

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