An eye on the Vaia storm: investigating windstorm impacts

A team of researchers at the University of Padova is running the VAIA FRONT project, which provides an unprecedented opportunity to investigate windstorm impacts in a constructive and multidisciplinary way

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Photo: Giulia Corradini, WOWnature project.

Effects and consequences of climate change are starting to become clear, especially in those areas where nature is the main leading element. So it is for mountains and forests, whose exposure and vulnerability to extreme natural events is exponentially increasing. According to estimates, storms have been identified as the most impacting agent for European forest and forest socio-ecological systems and their frequency and severity is expected to increase. At a European level, the most recent of these catastrophic events has been the Vaia windstorm.

Data Source: Sisef – Compagnia delle foreste

On the night between the 28th and 29th of October 2018, Italy was hit by the most damaging windstorm that has ever affected the country. Wind gusts hit the Northeast of Italy at speeds higher than 190 km/h, affecting four out of the six regions in the area (from West to East, Lombardy, Trentino & South Tyrol, Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia). More than 41,000 hectares of forest were destroyed and more than 8 million m3 of timber were windthrown. The Vaia windstorm has shattered the Italian forest system, but has also had many severe direct and indirect socioeconomic impacts on mountainous areas. Today, two years after the event, forests and mountain communities are still striving to recover and find a new equilibrium.

Different actors and stakeholders at different institutional and governance levels are engaged in the identification of operational solutions to hasten the recovery process after extreme events. Scholars are involved in research aimed at identifying and studying medium- to long-term consequences of the Vaia windstorm in different forest-related sectors (ecology, wood markets, tourism, etc.) as well as connections and interactions between forest ecosystems and communities affected by the storm.

Given the size and complexity of the event and impacted areas, Vaia represents a unique opportunity to develop multidisciplinary research activities for a better understanding of extreme events and possible actions to prevent/reduce their impacts. This is why the Department of Land, Environment, Agriculture and Forestry (TESAF in Italian) of the University of Padova is running the VAIA FRONT project, a multidisciplinary research project aimed at analysing vulnerabilities of socio-ecological systems hit by Vaia and testing, in a pilot area of Veneto region, effective risk management and recovery strategies.

Project activities are complemented by research activities developed by a group of Young Scientists for Vaia, i.e. PhD candidates currently developing their PhD projects within the Land, Environment, Resources and Health PhD school at TESAF Department. One of these research activities is focused on enhancing the understanding of different institutional and governance mechanisms that boost community resilience and defining which are the key factors that have shaped individual and community reactions and recovery strategies to the Vaia windstorm.

Town of Malgonera, in Taibon Agordino. Photo: Maximiliano Costa.

Besides causing huge damage at the environmental and landscape level, the Vaia storm strongly affected socioeconomic, institutional and governance assets. Results of preliminary analyses have highlighted a knowledge gap in the estimation of socioeconomic damages. Data availability on the overall economic damages is very limited and — so far — impacts on the communities from social, cultural and managerial perspectives have barely been taken into consideration.

Vaia has posed and is still posing several challenges at a governance level: different stakeholders’ attitudes and needs have to be taken into consideration and harmonised together in order to implement effective recovery strategies. To acquire a correct and complete understanding of windstorm impacts in all forest-related dimensions, socio-ecological systems is the first step to identify the weaknesses to be addressed and the strengths to be reinforced for developing appropriate strategies to increase resilience of the communities hit, as well as improving governance effectiveness at various levels.

Town of Sappada, in Udine. Photo: Federica Romagnoli.

Further research, interdisciplinary scientific collaborations and a shared management among multiple stakeholders are needed to understand trade-offs, as well as short- and long-term effects — both at environmental and social level in the areas hit — and to ensure a long-term recovery. Both the PhD activities and the VAIA FRONT project will contribute to improving knowledge in this field and providing inputs for future technical and policy actions.