Hurricane Michael was recently reclassified as a Category 5 storm by NOAA. The storm devastated parts of Florida, Georgia and beyond in 2018 with 160 mph winds, storm surge and rainfall. For my home state of Georgia, it was a particularly tragic event with agricultural losses estimated to be in the $2.5 to 3 billion range. I feel for the hard-working farmers and people that suffered tremendous losses. Most of them are still trying to recover. As professor and atmospheric scientist that studies extreme weather events at the University of Georgia, I was stunned as Hurricane Michael maintained such vigor well into the state of Georgia. I also worried, at that time, about potential agricultural losses. I wrote the following in Forbes:
Georgia ranked 1st in broilers, peanuts, pecans, and spring onions. It ranked 2nd in cotton. Basic economic principles suggest that reduced supply of these commodities will impact farmers. However, that is not all. Think about how many things you used with peanuts, pecans, poultry, or cotton today. This tragedy affects you too if low supply impacts price.
Spring is the “greening season,” and a recent image from the GOES weather satellite provides a stark depiction of Hurricane Michael’s destruction of Georgia vegetation. I asked several experts for their reaction to this image.
The satellite image above is from the GOES GeoColor product, which according to the NOAA website ”is a multispectral product composed of True Color (using a simulated green component) during the daytime, and an Infrared product that uses bands 7 and 13 at night.” Keith Stellman is the Meteorologist-in-Charge at the National Weather Service office in the Atlanta area. Stellman posted the picture and also sent me the following comment:
The impacts on the trees will last for years to come. Should we go into a drought it will exasperate the issue creating a wildfire concern especially as we get into the late summer and fall.
Georgia is certainly transitioning into the “hot” season. The American GFS model, though running a bit warm lately, predicts near 100-degree F temperatures (below) in the region by next week so Stellman’s cautions are warranted.
Pam Knox is the director of the Georgia Automated Environmental Monitoring Network (AEMN) and an expert on agricultural meteorology. The AEMN network, managed by the University of Georgia, measured a 115 mph wind gust near Donalsonville, Georgia as Hurricane Michael came through the state. Knox told me in an email:
My UGA weather network technician visited the region shortly after the storm and told me that it looked like a tornado track 25 miles wide. I heard something similar from NWS folks as well but cannot recall the exact quote.
Dr. Margueite Madden is the director of the Center for Geospatial Research at the University of Georgia. Madden, an ecologist by training, is also a professor in the Department of Geography and the former President of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS). She wrote to me, “Just a quick measure of the width of the brown area is about 175 km (109 mi.) – so maybe even a 100-mile swath would be appropriate.”
Scholarly research has documented numerous ways that blown-down trees from hurricanes cause problems. Damaged tree canopy is not good for the natural ecosystem and wildlife, particularly birds, that rely on them. Floodplain, fire and land management practices are also affected. In Georgia, much of the “brown” in the image likely represents the loss of numerous pecan trees, peanuts, and other agricultural vegetation. Lenny Wells is an Associate Professor and Extension Horticulture Specialist for pecans at the University of Georgia. He wrote the following statement in an extension service blog last October:
Along this path, the storm devastated much of the Georgia pecan crop. Mitchell, Lee, and Dougherty Counties alone account for 30% of Georgia’s pecan production. I spoke with a number of growers in these counties and each one told me the area has lost from 30-50% of its pecan trees.
The “new normal” may mean an era of more intense hurricanes that maintain their strength inland. The satellite image that inspired this essay is a reminder of the many residual impacts that come along with such storms.