Chiu-Ying Lam: Who Doesn’t Fall After the Typhoon?

English Translation of Chiu-Ying Lam’s Article on 7 October 2018

The Xylom™
Oct 13, 2018 · 4 min read

This article is first published in Traditional Chinese here.

“thunderstorm with dark clouds” by Josep Castells on Unsplash

The day Super Typhoon Mangkhut struck Hong Kong, nobody died due to the storm; however, an incredible number of trees were toppled by the wind, including many large trees.

This time the wind was so strong, we have never seen something like that in many years (Editor’s note: Mangkhut was more intense than Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey). The trees in Hong Kong were spoiled for so long, no wonder they all crumbled at once. But as I went around after the catastrophe, I discovered that the weeds on the sidewalk, long thought to be frail, were seemingly spared and stood strong as if nothing happened.

After the typhoon, the wild licorice weed sprouted with emerald leaves and clusters of flowers. (Photo by Chiu-Ying Lam)

Why wasn’t the small plant afraid of the gale when the sturdy tree couldn’t withstand it?

In life, we follow the same principle: we must respect the way of nature and follow its direction; forcefully rebelling against nature with our hands and tools, I’m afraid, would end up in broken branches and fallen trees.

— Chiu-Ying Lam, Former Director of the Hong Kong Observatory

Examining the collapsed trees, some were perhaps meeting their end anyway — their interior was battered; even if they didn’t fall this time, they couldn’t get away next time. Some trees in their prime were uprooted however, and the size of roots and soil retained (we’ll call them the “legs” of the trees for now) paled in comparison to that of the tree canopy. No wonder they couldn’t get a good hold of the ground, and were subjected to the mercy of the wind blasting on the canopies.

The Crateva unilocularis trees newly planted last year fell this year; their “legs” look visibly tiny and lacking in grip. (Photo by Chiu-Ying Lam)

Experts have pointed out on TV news that the “legs” are tiny due to the fact that city planning rarely accommodated for trees: cement trapped tree roots within a small space, stunting growth, so the legs were left pathetically tiny. On the other hand, tree canopies above ground were free to grow in size. Compounded with the flaws in tree maintenance that kept chopping off lower branches, the trees were forced to grow vertically, raising the center of gravity of the tree. As a result, the top-heavy trees ended up being swept by the wind.

Another situation arose when urban planting never involved seedlings: in order to improve the landscape as quickly as possible, we transplant trees that had already met a certain height. For the convenience of transporting, when they were dug up at their original plantation, the tree roots were usually severed and only a small “leg” was what all remained of them. When the trees came to the city ready to be planted, the “leg” was placed inside a predug hole, some soil was filled in and the work was complete by adding support frames; there wasn’t any wind resistance to begin with. When some trees were blown down by Typhoon Hato (Editor’s note: a Typhoon with Category-3 intensity; the total damage amounted to US$ 2 billion) in 2017, the trees were replanted according to this method. Unfortunately we encountered Mangkhut this year, and new trees like that were destroyed.

Who doesn’t fall after the typhoon? The answer: roadside weeds responding to the forces of nature with their flexibility stood strong, trees bearing the brunt of the typhoon failed and fell; in particular, artificially planted trees which go against the laws of nature were uprooted the most easily.

In life, we go about with the same principle: we must respect the way of nature and follow its direction; forcefully rebelling against nature with our hands and tools, I’m afraid, would end up in broken branches and fallen trees.

“Tree trunks and fallen leaves on the forest floor” by Craig Strahorn on Unsplash

The Xylom™

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All scientists are humans. Humans tell stories. The Xylom is the place for scientists to tell their stories.

The Xylom™

All scientists are humans. Humans tell stories. The Xylom is the place for scientists to tell their stories.

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