Tag Archives: climate change

Falling trees

First published in the May issue of Woman magazine. This is what one might call a retrospective view of the impact of Cyclone Dovi back in February and what it might indicate for the future with climate change.

“Imagine if trees gave off wifi signals, we would be planting so many trees, we would probably save the planet, too. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.”

social media meme

I did not have ‘hit by cyclone’ on my personal bingo card of climate change risk. Rising sea levels, flooding, mini tornado (we get a few of those in our area), slips, droughts – I had mentally considered all those scenarios.

We dropped the large abies two years ago as a precautionary move lest it fall on the house and when Dovi hit, we were very glad of that.

Indeed, we made the decision two years ago to drop the one big tree that could fall on our house and pretty much demolish it. It was a handsome Abies procera glauca, also known as the blue Noble Fir, planted by my late father-in-law about 70 years ago. We were sad to see it go but it seemed a wise precaution at the time.

It seemed an even wiser decision when we took a direct hit from Cyclone Dovi in mid February. As massive trees crashed down around us, we could at least take comfort from the thought the abies was not going to fall on us as we sheltered indoors.

When Cyclone Bola hit parts of Taranaki and then the East Coast in 1988, it largely bypassed our little corner of the countryside. The winds were strong but nothing too far out of the ordinary.  New Zealand is a windy country and we are used to that, but there hadn’t been any cyclones in our area in the intervening 34 years which is why I hadn’t put it on my mental bingo card.

At 150 years old, our massive old Pinus radiata trees are weighed down with epiphytes and nearing the end of their life.

I garden on a fairly expansive scale, with my husband, Mark. It is a property that has been handed down the generations of his family since 1870 and we know who planted which trees and when. Some of the trees are now 150 years old, planted by Thomas Jury, and we know the old pine trees are pretty much at the end of their life. They are not helped by the fact Thomas’s son, Bertrum Jury, topped them at about 10 metres high in the early years of last century. It didn’t stop the pines from growing and the biggest are now up to 45 metres but with a weak point where Bertrum cut them. We have had some snap off at that point and others that uproot entirely and fall.

Why, you may wonder, do we not bite the bullet and get all the pines felled? It is just too big a job. We can’t get heavy machinery into that part of the property and it would probably have to be done by a massive logging helicopter. We are not in that financial league and, where those trees are, when they fall, it is only our property that gets damaged so they are not a risk to others.

The belladonna lilies flowered on, unperturbed by the fallen gum tree. I measured the diameter of the tree and the main section was two metres across. We cut the root ball and base free from the trunk and used heavy machinery to push the base back upright to create a more attractive gardening environment.

Besides, we can cope when big trees fall one at a time. We are used to that and can go in and do an efficient and speedy clean-up. Losing several at once, as we did with Cyclone Dovi, was rather different. It wasn’t just the damage from falling pine trees; we also lost a giant gum (eucalyptus) at our road entrance that was also 150 years old and Mark literally had tears in his eyes when he found another abies – a baby at just 70 years but one of our most handsome trees – uprooted in the park and lying over our high bridge. Those were just the largest trees. There were smaller trees and branches down everywhere.

The sheer scale of damage from fallen trees after Cyclone Dovi left us paralysed by shock for two days.

Mark and I went into shock for the first two days, paralysed by the scale of the clean-up task that lay ahead. Fortunately, most of it was garden damage, not structural damage, and we have good people around us. It did not look so overwhelming when we eventually got power and running water restored and the most urgent areas were being cleared. A fair number of homes in our local town of Waitara will be heated by firewood and pine cones after I offered both free, on a local Facebook page.

We cut back the fallen pine on the left to clear the path and it will eventually collapse to the ground but it perches somewhat like a giant lizard in the midst of woodland garden.

When big trees fall, our approach is now tried and true. Attempting to remove the fallen tree in its entirety would cause huge amounts of additional damage to the area and add considerable expense. We go in and remove all the debris, the foliage and side branches on the tree. We will cut through the trunk where it is blocking paths or access but we leave the main length lying where it fell.

I use ‘we’ in the royal sense. I do not chainsaw and I would not like to mislead with a mental image of me in work boots and ear muffs wielding a noisy chainsaw. My strengths lie more in the lighter aspects of cleaning up and reinstating gardens around the remaining trunks.

These two pine trees fell eight or nine years ago and we left the main lengths where they lay, gardening around them and allowing epiphytes to establish as they gently decay.

Within a year, we can have those fallen trunks nestled into the garden with plants thriving on and around them and they can gently decay over the years. Instant, unplanned stumperies, one could say, or a pragmatic gardening solution.

The conundrum is that we know one of the ways to mitigate climate change is to plant many trees. Big trees. Long-lived trees. A dwarf apple or maple is not going to contribute to saving the world. But with climate change, we know also that we will get more extreme weather events and that can bring those big trees down.

Power companies and linesmen are not tree-lovers.  I can understand why when I saw trees on three roads around us bring down lines in the cyclone. I was relieved that none of them were our trees. It is a fine line to tread. We monitor our trees that could endanger power lines or buildings and have already dropped some that we deemed too risky.

The answers seem to be: plant trees, lots of trees if you have space, not just for future generations and to help the planet but also for the pleasure of watching them grow. But choose the spots carefully so that they have a chance of reaching maturity without threatening power lines or buildings and without casting unwanted shade on either your own house or the neighbours.

Circles of pine trunk now define the edges of a pathway

Don’t believe the heights given on commercial plant labels – these are often conjured out of thin air to make the tree seem less threatening to the customer or, at best, are what might be expected in the short to mid-term. If space is limited, consider narrow, columnar trees that give height and grace without spreading or casting much shade. Trees which stay lower often spread widely instead, taking up much more space without giving stature in a garden. 

Think long term. Some trees can live hundreds of years. While a tree can achieve some size in 20 years, they are not mature – not by a long shot. From about 40 years on, you can start to claim you have mature trees. Trees are generally low maintenance, but that does not mean no maintenance.

We will be keeping a closer eye on our higher risk trees after Cyclone Dovi.

Watching Australia Burn

Midsummer sunrise in Tikorangi on January 2, seen through smoke and ash drift from Australia’s fires

It was probably the smoke and ash clouds floating over New Zealand that shook this country the most. Until then, the bush fires of Australia were at a safe distance. We felt immune to it on our islands isolated by 2000 km of ocean. It was all happening ‘over there’. But on New Year’s Day, the air was so bad in Dunedin that people needed headlights on to drive all day and most stayed indoors with the lights on. In mid summer. In Taranaki, we are the closest land to the east coast of Australia but wind currents meant that all we had was a peculiarly diffuse red sun, lowered light levels and sometimes a whiff of burning. What must it be like in the burning country, we all wondered.

I do not know whose image this is but it came through Bill McKibben on Twitter (@billmckibben) with the caption: These are Australians waiting on the beach to flee into the ocean if the fire keeps coming. It’s the only ‘safe’ place they can find.

Mark and I are more emotionally invested in Australia than some. Our three children live there, we have friends, colleagues and close connections. At times, I have felt like I am watching disaster porn. Six million hectares (fifteen million acres) burned already and no end in sight. An estimated half a billion animals burned. I can’t cope with the stories and images of animal suffering and death. So many of these animals depend on humans to keep them safe or to preserve what remains of their habitats but we have failed them in every way.

The view of Parliament Buildings in Canberra two days ago.

Our children all live inner city so are pretty safe from actual fires. Outer suburbs are not guaranteed. But our only grandchild lives in Canberra – a city that has consistently topped the poll in the past week as having the worst air quality of any city in the world. The air is so bad that it is deemed extremely hazardous and our grandson can’t go outdoors. Our Canberra daughter is struggling with the horrors she sees. She commented a month ago that her garden is now full of birds that she never normally sees because they are countryside birds, not urban ones. This was interesting, she said, but hugely sad because they have flown into the city in search of food because they are starving in the long running drought. She has set up feeding stations and water for desperate birds. This week, with the continued deterioration of air quality, Australian National University, where she works, closed along with some of the commercial city centre. She rang on Thursday and said she was going to do a doomsday prep shop the next day because the chances of Canberra being totally cut off by fire were fairly high. In her practical, down to earth way, she said that for the first time, she and her partner have prepared a list of what to grab just in case they have to be evacuated.

Countless others are in conditions that are so much worse and there is no end in sight. The spring rains never came. There is no guarantee that the autumn rains will arrive and the fires will likely remain uncontrollable until the advent of rain. The hot part of summer is yet to come and already that country is registering temperatures in the 40sC (well over 100F) across the entire continent. My heart goes out to any and all readers currently in Australia.

The iconic photo of 11 year old Finn Burns, taken and shared by his mother, as the family took refuge on the water at Mallacoota Beach.

Australia is not so much the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change, although the coal metaphor is accurate.

It is the blazing, burning continent for the rest of the world to see.

It won’t be fire and drought that is the manifestation of climate change for many countries. The Pacific Islands have been begging the world to notice that they are being swamped by rising sea levels. In New Zealand, it is more likely to be torrential rainfall, rising sea levels and what we quaintly call ‘extreme weather events’. Already some coastal settlements are under threat. Europe appears to be on track for both extreme heat waves and flooding.

To climate change deniers (who, I notice, like to call themselves ‘sceptics’ or to claim they have ‘an open mind’) I say: what if you are wrong? What if, in your determined efforts to stonewall or undermine any environmental improvements because you don’t believe in climate change and don’t want to change your comfortable status quo, you are wrong? What if the apocalyptic scenes coming out of Australia are not an isolated, though appalling, situation but rather an indicator of what is coming to the world?  

Postscript: If you clicked on the coal link above, the red-face, self-satisfied bloke to the left of the Prime Minister is one Barnaby Joyce, some time deputy prime minister. Mr Joyce distinguished himself yet again late last year by claiming that the first bushfire fatalities were most likely to be Green voters.  

Vincentia beach front in 2014

Post postscript: We had a family Christmas in Vincentia five years ago. Vincentia is still there although included in the mass evacuation of the south eastern coastline because of uncontrolled fires.

These roadsides have all burned.

The road through this forest of Macrozamia communis has been closed for some time because of fires. It is likely this is now all burned. The vegetation should recover if the rains arrive. Much of the Australian bush has evolved to regenerate after fire but it all depends on the rains. It seems unlikely that the wildlife that inhabited this area will ever recover.

As a final comment and so that northern hemisphere readers can understand the sheer scale of the catastrophe unfolding in Australia, I include this map.

The world map we all know does not show actual size relativity. If you look at countries by size (the darker blue), the burning continent of Australia is in fact about the same size as USA and just a little smaller than Russia.




About climate change

I am not usually one for sharing social media memes but today, I make an exception. They say far more succinctly than I can what needs to be said about climate change.

Thank you Joel Pett. Mark is of the view that it matters not one whit whether people believe in climate change or not because only an idiot could think that we can continue trashing the planet as we are and not suffer catastrophic consequences. We MUST change our ways. Urgently.

And for those of you who find it all too much, thank you Olga Evans.

We have made major changes in our own lives here, to reduce our carbon footprint and consumption. The issue that worries me at a personal level is air travel, exacerbated by being a New Zealander. For us it is four hours and two flights to get over to our children in Australia (all our three children live in different east coast Australian cities), about twenty five hours in the air to get to the UK or Europe (and another twenty five hours to get home again). That is one where I am pinning my hopes on new technologies to reduce the impact of flying.

In the meantime, I am listening to the young people who are mobilising on this matter. I would much rather listen to them than to older folks (mostly, but not all, old men) who last studied science back in their high school years fifty or sixty years ago but who have found some dodgy website that backs up their complacent world view, no matter what the majority of the world’s scientists are saying.

Change is coming. Massive change. The planet does not care whether you or I believe in climate change. The longer we insist on continuing the status quo, the more shocking that change will be.