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Think Like a Tree: What We Can Learn From the Oaks That Survived Katrina

By Chelsea Leu

Ten years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, bringing floods and gale-force winds that devastated the region and displaced more than a million people. But New Orleans’ live oaks were surprisingly resilient, as biologist Janine Benyus describes in our first episode of a new video series on biomimicry, Think Like a Tree.

As the tallest living things on earth, trees have developed strategies to protect themselves against threats to their leaved towers. In the process, they’ve “managed to solve daunting problems of engineering,” says Steven Vogel, a Duke biologist who studies the ways organisms structure themselves in moving fluids.

Take the beating a tree gets from a hurricane. Gale force winds hammer trees with a dynamic collection of blows, which unleashes “a suite of mechanical problems that would give an engineer nightmares,” Vogel says. Beyond withstanding high wind speeds, trees need to deal with wind acceleration and the air’s “throw weight”—its mass, basically. Calms between gusts can be damaging, too, as the tree rebounds and sways, potentially building up heavy loads on branches and roots. Not to mention the litany of other environmental factors that come into play during a storm: precipitation levels, soil conditions, the state of the surrounding trees.

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Monday, August 31, 2015