Anyone out of the country that week in October came back to find an altered landscape. An estimated 15 million trees had been toppled, mainly in southern England, which bore the brunt of the hurricane-force winds. The north of Britain is used to ferocious winds, but the south hadn’t experienced anything like it for nearly 300 years. The result was a large population of very tall, old trees that had never been tested by such severe weather conditions.
An arborist from Philadelphia, Andrew William Graham Jr., travelled to the UK to help with clearing storm damage, and his account, published in the Journal of Arboriculture (16(10): October 1990), contains some interesting anecdotes.
As the storm hit land in the night, few people were killed, but in the desperate clean-up afterwards many inexperienced chainsaw-wielders ended up in hospital. The demand for chainsaws was so great, Graham recalls, that police had to break into a supplier’s and commandeer their stock in the Public Interest.
What to do with all the wood?
“Local governments designated public disposal sites where huge bonfires blazed continuously during the month before our arrival and, no doubt, for many months after our departure.”
Bonfire Night that year would be well stocked. Tree stumps with huge mud-coated roots that resisted burning had to be dynamited.
At the badly affected Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, researchers made the most of the disaster and seized the opportunity to study tree root systems, usually inaccessible. Growth rings were studied to obtain more data on air pollution and climate change.
In Wakehurst gardens, an outpost of Kew, Graham found the collection included trees native to the United States:
“Giant sequoias . . . withstood the wind, apparently well adapted to high winds. Only one lodged over onto its neighbour. Some retained a slight bend, evidence of their struggle.”
Other trees were damaged by salt, as sea spray was hurled miles inland.
The insurance companies, who had to fork out £2 billion, probably wouldn’t see the positive side of the Great Storm, but the mass natural tree clearance was followed by a boom in biodiversity. Holes rent in the canopies allowed a variety of plants to grow. Fallen trees favoured insects, and bird populations in affected woodlands became more interesting, with habitats created for nightjars and woodlarks, as well as rodents, which in turn provided food for owls and sparrowhawks.
The above photograph comes from an extensive gallery of images on the BBC.