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Effects of Severe Tropical Cyclone Larry on rainforest vegetation and understorey microclimate near a road, powerline and stream



Abstract  Severe Tropical Cyclone Larry damaged a large swathe of rainforest to the west of Innisfail in north-eastern Queensland on 20 March 2006. Within the path of the most destructive core of the cyclone were sites previously established along human-made (powerlines and highways) and natural (streams) linear canopy openings for a study of edge effects on adjacent rainforest plant communities and associated microclimates. Vegetation damage and understorey microclimate parameters were measured 6 months after the passage of Cyclone Larry and compared with results before the cyclone. We examined the spatial patterns of vegetation damage in relation to natural and artificial linear clearing edges and the vegetation structural factors influencing these patterns as well as resulting alterations to microclimate regimes experienced in the rainforest understorey. Vegetation damage was spatially patchy and not elevated near linear clearing edges relative to the forest interior and did not differ between edge types. Vegetation damage was influenced, albeit relatively weakly, by structural traits of individual trees and saplings, especially size (diameter at breast height, d.b.h.) and successional status: tree damage was greater in pioneer species and in larger trees, while sapling damage was greater in canopy tree species than in understorey tree or shrub species. Changes in the understorey microclimate mirrored the degree of damage to vegetation. Where vegetation damage appeared greater, the understorey microclimate was brighter, warmer, drier and windier than below less-damaged areas of the forest canopy. Overall, understorey light availability, wind speed and the diurnal ranges of air temperature and vapour pressure deficit increased dramatically after Cyclone Larry, while pre-cyclone edge gradients in light availability were lost and temperature and vapour pressure deficit gradients were reversed.