Palm trees bend in high winds and are hard to uproot. A forest ecologist says they're perfectly designed to withstand hurricanes.

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Palm trees bend in high winds and are hard to uproot. A forest ecologist says they're perfectly designed to withstand hurricanes.
Palm trees blow in the wind from Hurricane Ian in Sarasota, Florida, on September 28, 2022.Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Last week, footage from Hurricane Ian slamming into Florida and South Carolina showed damaging winds and flying waves snapping and buckling trees. But as pines and oaks fell, most palm trees were able to bend with the wind and withstand Ian's punishing conditions.

That's because palm trees have distinctive features that make them resistant to storm damage, Maria Uriarte, a forest ecologist at Columbia University, told Insider.

Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions trap heat in ocean waters, which in turn causes more evaporation and pumps moisture into the air. As hurricanes pass over, they absorb that moisture, which fuels slower and wetter storms, like Hurricane Ian.

But even as storms strengthen, palm trees' bendy trunks and unique root systems continue to allow them to stand up to these tropical tyrants.

Palms are more closely related to grasses than other trees

Palm trees bend in high winds and are hard to uproot. A forest ecologist says they're perfectly designed to withstand hurricanes.
Winds lash the coastal city of Fajardo as Hurricane Maria approaches Puerto Rico, on September 19, 2017.RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Image

Palms belong to the Arecaceae family, a group that emerged about 100 million years ago. There are 181 known genera and around 2,600 species.

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While palms are technically trees, they're monocots, meaning they're more closely related to grass, corn, and rice than they are to other trees, according to Uriarte.

Monocots only have one cotyledon, or the part of the seed that grows into the leaves. Palm trees have a stem, with triangle-shaped leaves called fronds that grow from a point at the top, according to Uriarte.

"What happens during hurricanes is that they are very flexible, so they can move with the wind and the fronds tend to fall off, but they can grow very rapidly right after the storm passes," she said, adding, "That makes them very resistant to damage."

Palm trees' woodless trunks allow them to bend in the wind

Palm trees bend in high winds and are hard to uproot. A forest ecologist says they're perfectly designed to withstand hurricanes.
Debris in the Baie Nettle area of Marigot on Saint Martin, after being devastated by Hurricane Irma, on September 12, 2017.MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Palm trees bend easily in the wind, thanks to their fibrous and fairly wet woodless trunks. "If you were to cut them, it's like a bundle of vessels that they use to move water and nutrients, and it's pretty soft," Uriarte said, adding, "That makes them very flexible."

This flexibility makes them well adapted to windy and hurricane-prone areas.

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Not all palm trees are alike. Uriarte pointed to research in Miami after Hurricane Andrew that found that palm trees originating from hurricane-prone areas — mostly in the Caribbean — were much more resistant to hurricanes than palms that came from areas that did not have hurricanes.

"That's interesting, because that also suggests that this resistance to hurricanes has evolved over time and that is not the same for all palm trees," Uriarte said.

In hurricane-prone areas, palm trees are common at higher elevations. "I expect that part of that reason is that, as you go up the mountain, it gets wetter and palms like wet soil," Uriarte said.

Another explanation, she added, might be that high mountains get the brunt of the wind from hurricanes, and palms tend to be more resistant to wind than other types of trees.

Palm trees' slightly above-ground roots anchor them, even in flooded areas

Palm trees bend in high winds and are hard to uproot. A forest ecologist says they're perfectly designed to withstand hurricanes.
The roots of Prestoea montana, a palm tree on the wet slopes of the high mountains in El Yunque rainforest, in 2012.Xemenendura

Palm trees are hard to uproot. That's because they have unique root systems, which are made up of a large number of short roots, which spread across the upper levels of the soil and help anchor the trees in place.

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In the photo above, a palm tree in Puerto Rico's El Yunque rainforest grows roots above the ground.

"They go into the ground, but part of the root is also above the soil and that means that they don't get bogged down by the flooded areas," Uriarte said.

Experts say palm trees are ultra-resilient

Palm trees bend in high winds and are hard to uproot. A forest ecologist says they're perfectly designed to withstand hurricanes.
Downed power line poles and damaged palm trees, above, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on October 2, 2017. Below, cars drive on the recently repaired road, on March 19, 2018.RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

In 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 155 miles per hour.

Uriarte has monitored tree growth and death across Puerto Rico for more than a decade. After Maria, she and her team went back to Puerto Rico to document the storm's damage. They found that the hurricane had killed or severely damaged an estimated 20 million to 40 million trees. The palm trees were able to bounce back more quickly than other trees populations after the storm, in part because palms take root quickly.

"All of the trees took a while to recover, but the fastest recovery was for the palms," Uriarte said, adding, "They're unique and very well adapted to withstand hurricanes."

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