On the night of 28th October 2018, Italy was swept by an exceptional storm. As rivers were swollen by heavy rain, a stark, relentless wind kept blowing in the mountains of the Northeast.
When, days later, the sky cleared up, the inhabitants couldn’t believe their eyes: their woods, making the once celebrated landscapes of the Dolomites, were gone. More than ten million trees were broken in half, uprooted, sharply cut, sometimes cast far away.
The storm, soon named Vaia, had destroyed 8.7 million cubic metres of forest, almost tenfold the destruction brought by the previous worst recorded windstorm, in 1966. Yet, if compared with other European storms, Vaia is far from exceptional in size. Windstorms are the main threat to European forests and are expected to become more destructive in the coming decades.
It is extremely rare that such events hit the southern slopes of the Alps, an area which, like most mountains, are particularly vulnerable to climate change.
A messenger storm
“Vaia is globally irrelevant but locally unprecedented,” says Diego Cason, a sociologist who has investigated the impact of the storm on local communities. “In the most affected areas”, he argues, the storm has caused “a shock comparable to a human loss.”
While some of the areas hit are renowned ski resorts that, in fact, had the money to get back on track fairly quickly, for most other zones it is different. Ageing, depopulated communities, with a centuries-old mountain tradition, that couldn’t keep at pace with the ever-accelerating modernity. For them, Cason says, the collapse of timber price following the storm, together with the disfigurement of the landscape attracting tourists and hikers, could be the final blow.
The Dolomites have a long and famous forestry tradition, partially still surviving, where woods are owned and directly managed by the community. Just to give a couple of well-known examples: Venice foundations and the Stradivari violins are made with wood from some of these forests, carefully conserved for centuries.
But in recent times, the valleys were progressively abandoned for the cities, and so was the care for the territory. Even if the forests grew bigger, most of them become spruce monocultures, more exposed to wind disturbances and less resilient to climate change.
Vaia, according to Cason, has been a “messenger, showing the need to change.” It was a lesson about the sense of limit inspired by the mountains and giving autonomy to local communities now administered by distant bureaucracy. “But it will be hard”, he sourly comments, “as trees don’t vote.”
Forestry scientists, more optimistically, think, Vaia could be an important opportunity. Present-day Italian silviculture is promoting the abandon of monocultures in forests and, when possible, let the forest grow back by itself. Now there is an opportunity to do it at a large scale.
However, it won’t be an easy path. Two years after the storm, researchers warn that fungi and insects might begin to proliferate on the dead wood, threatening the surviving trees nearby. More than half the fallen trees, in fact, are still on the ground, too risky or too expensive to remove. According to Nicola La Porta, a forest scientist at the Edmund Mach Foundation, parasites could end up, in a few years, damaging the trees nearly as much as the storm.
A source of inspiration
Vaia has had another unexpected effect: it has stayed in the collective imagination as a symbol of climate change and the need to take action against it, as evidenced by the large number of works of art and good practice initiatives that flourished after the storm.
The first storm-inspired works of art were born in ArteSella, a suggestive open-air contemporary art museum in the middle of a forest, also hurt by the wind. In the two years following the storm, almost each of the affected communities had its sculpture, photo-exhibition, documentary or any kind of initiative calling for new care for the territory.
Just to name a few, a large exhibition, TreeTime, is currently combining art and science in the Science Museum of Trento. In summer 2020, playwright Stefano Boeri took some uprooted trunks to the Greek Theatre of Syracuse, one of the most scenic stages in the world, while another drama, by Matteo Righetto, went around Italy’s Northeast. Documentaries like La Notte di Vaia, and a particularly impressive sound opera tells us about the roar of the wind.
Meanwhile, a group of young designers is producing resonance cubes, working as energy-free amplifiers using the resonance property of the crashed woods. The aim is to use the proceeds to plant new trees, like many other bottom-up similar initiatives.
At a national level, the project Laudato Si’, aims to plant 60 million trees throughout the country. If it reaches its goal, there’s no doubt it will be also thanks to the visibility to the forest issues after Vaia.
The storm has influenced artists, hikers, mountain dwellers, activists and researchers. Now it’s the decision maker’s turn.