How climate change, construction can weaken trees and cause severe storm damage

Last Saturday’s severe thunderstorms and strong winds caused extensive damage across the Waterloo and Guelph Regions.

Fallen trees and broken branches damage cars, houses and property. In Ontario, nine out of ten people who die in hurricanes, and as a result, die from falling trees or fallen tree branches. In one case, a woman in the Brant area died when a tree fell in her camping trailer.

One climate expert said trees weakened by climate change conditions and infrastructure projects may be partly to blame for the scale of the damage.

“Extreme heat and drought conditions can impact tree growth … and can encourage shallow root systems as trees try and take advantage of surface rainfall,” said Joanna Eyquem, managing director of climate resilient infrastructure at the Intact Center. Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.

He said rising temperatures have also created ideal conditions for tree diseases such as the emerald ash borer to thrive.

Infrastructure work and road maintenance can also damage tree root systems, Eyquem said.

“If our tree is less healthy, we will most likely have dead branches, or a tree that is more unstable. So when we see strong winds, the unstable tree can fall and the branches can break,” he said.

A fallen tree at the corner of Nottinghill and Commissioner Street following a storm on Saturday, May 21, 2022. (Gary Ennett/CBC News)

Protecting trees during construction

The city government said protecting mature trees and natural areas was a priority during construction planning.

A City of Kitchener spokeswoman said developers and contractors are required to work around trees and follow high tree protection standards.

“When work takes place within tree drip lines, it is done with careful planning and protective measures to minimize tree and root damage,” a spokesperson said in a statement to CBC News.

Jamie Croft, manager of infrastructure engineering at the City of Cambridge, said the city, like others, was pushing for trenchless technology, which avoided excavation.

The storm knocked out power lines throughout the area included in this photo on Weber Street near Ottawa in Kitchener. (Posted by Sherry Morley)

“The city is aware that root damage within tree drip lines is contributing to tree weakening and is taking the necessary precautions to protect trees,” Croft said in an emailed statement.

A spokesperson for the City of Waterloo said the city avoids running utilities and other infrastructure near mature trees whenever possible. If that is not possible, then protective measures are outlined in each contract.

“Trees that are unhealthy or will be too unstable after construction can be removed. Where possible, trenchless work is carried out to minimize damage to the root system of mature trees,” a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Eyquem said the city government could take proactive action to better prepare for future storms, including increasing tree canopy targets and managing trees as if they were assets, such as building infrastructure.

“Planning and long-term investment,” he said.

Morning Edition – KW5:01Poor tree health, infrastructure projects may contribute to Saturday’s severe storm damage

Saturday’s violent storm and strong winds caused trees and branches to fall across the Waterloo and Guelph areas. While the scale of the damage is still being quantified, Joanna Eyquem of Climate-Resilient Infrastructure at the Intact Center on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, explains how climate change and maintenance of infrastructure may be to blame.

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