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The Vaia storm five years later – lessons for forests and people

By Alberto Pauletto, FSC Italia

At the end of October 2018, tropical storm Vaia brought heavy rains and winds of up to 200 km/h to Northern Italy, killing 37 people and unleashing damage estimated at almost 5 billion euros. Vaia also affected parts of France, Croatia, Austria, and Switzerland, but Italy sustained the worst forestry destruction in its recent history, with more than 14 million trees felled. The Asiago Oltre Vaia project was an initiative of the Municipality of Asiago  –  with the support of numerous entities such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Italia, Treedom, and the University of Padua  –  designed to draw lessons from the catastrophe to create more resistant and resilient forests for the future.

Storm Vaia destroyed about 2,300 hectares of woods on the Asiago Plateau, north of Vicenza in the Veneto region. This was the second huge destruction of the region’s forestry heritage after that of the First World War, which wiped out almost 70 per cent of the forests in the area. After the war, the forests of the Asiago Plateau were reconstituted using species with high economic value, such as spruce, to drive economic recovery of the affected areas. That reforestation was in part the reason for Storm Vaia’s impact.

“The wind arrived up here and found woods all of the same species and age,” explained Marco Pellegrini, forestry technician in charge of the Asiago Oltre Vaia project. “The intense rains of the previous days then loosened the ground. It was like bowling; the trees fell like skittles.”

Diego Rigoni, councilor for forestry heritage of the Municipality of Asiago at the time of the storm, agreed. “For the local community it was a very hard blow. Our lives have always been inextricably linked with those of our forests. In the days following the storm the surrounding area resembled the scenario of death and destruction left by the Great War. For many of us it was a very bad return to the past.”

At the same time, the woods, weakened by the storm, were under attack by an insect. The spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) feeds and breeds under the bark of trees, which results in damage from drying out. In some areas, the consequences of this little insect were even worse than those of Vaia.

“We noticed trees were drying in groups, and those patches were spreading. Hot, dry summers have led to an uncontrolled proliferation of the bark beetle,” said Marco Pellegrini.

Initiatives to plant new trees began as soon as the woods were cleared of trunks and branches. The Asiago Oltre Vaia project aimed to create more resistant and resilient forests by planting 6,000 seedlings in clusters of eight different species: conifers such as red and white fir and larch, and broad-leaved trees such as beech, birch, willow, whitebeam and European rowan.

“Vaia taught us that greater variability in species and age of trees can contribute not only to minimizing the effects of extreme weather phenomena, but also can increase biodiversity. The flowers and berries produced by the species we planted are in fact food for numerous animals, which can return to colonize these areas,” Marco Pellegrini said. This kind of information is also explained on information boards at the planting sites.

“From a scientific point of view, we are monitoring the progress of the plantings with the contribution of the University of Padua, and testing different solutions,” he added. These include the use of FSC-certified cardboard shelters to protect young plants. “Classic plastic tubes would have meant further burdening areas that suffered from Vaia’s effects with polluting material from the tubes.” The cardboard protection did not withstand the heavy snowfalls of the winter of 2020, but, said Marco Pellegrini, “we still believe that they are a much better ecological solution.”

Asiago Oltre Vaia is the first study of this kind in Italy, a real open-air laboratory to try to envisage the forests that will populate these areas in 100 or 150 years, and it continues to attract not only technicians but also students and tourists.

“We don’t have a magic wand,” concludes project technician Marco Pellegrini. “We can only proceed by trial and error, using science and our knowledge of forest management. The rest is up to nature, which is more patient than people.”

This Restoration Story is authored by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a member of the SUPERB project’s Advisory Board.

All photos by Alberto Pauletto

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