After Two Years

December 2008 Ice Storm

Two years ago on December 12th an epic ice storm crippled central New England.  Tens of thousands of trees and thousands and thousands of acres of forest were heavily damaged by one of the greatest ice storms in modern times in this region.  By and large the inconvenience brought to humans was just that, an inconvenience, but the damage to natural ecosystems was historical.  Central New England is heavily forested. This ice storm was devastating in vast areas.  Higher elevations, especially those areas on eastern slopes above 1400 feet, were hit the worse.  All those I’ve talked to in these hard hit areas spoke of being awake all night listening to shotgun-like booms go off every four or five seconds as limbs and entire trees snapped off under the weight of the ice.  I was amongst those that witnessed this night of fright and will never forget how helpless I felt. Those that lived within or close to heavily forested areas were lucky if they got through the storm without serious house and automobile damage from falling limbs and trees.  The forest was not so fortunate.

As an ecologist my main interest is in the impacts that this ice storm caused to the forest and to those who inhabit this wonderful environs.  I have had two full years to make observations with regard to this natural disaster and I must admit that the forest has done will given the hand it was dealt.   Nevertheless this ice storm was devastating to the central New England forest and will be noticeable for years to come.

I am working my way across a north and east facing slope.  I am on a forested hillside at about 1650 feet in altitude and will gingerly work my way up to about the 1800 foot altitude mark.  The traveling is slow.  I have to walk around tree tops, whole trees, climb over tree trunks and the many branches that are attached and occasionally crawl underneath a fallen tree if that is the easiest route.  On this November morning I am surveying the recovery from damage that came about as the result of a disastrous ice event in December of 2008.

The debris on the forest floor has settled a lot during the previous year.  The tree tops formerly supported by sturdy branches have settled as the supporting branches have weakened and broken.  This “settling” gives the forest a somewhat neater appearance and gives the observer a slightly improved view through the forested landscape.

By and large, most of the leaves have fallen off of the standing hardwood trees save some withering leaves that will linger on American beech branches until spring.    Looking up you can still see broken limbs.  A few still dangle precariously.  Some trees show ample new growth, and some are showing poor recovery.  The rule of thumb that foresters use in these situations is that a tree is likely not to recover if it has lost more than 40 percent of its canopy.  I’ve now had two years to watch this prediction and I have to say that it is generally true.   All rules are made to be broken and forestry rules are no different.  Some trees that only lost 25% of their canopy are failing miserably.  Other trees that easily lost 60% of its canopy are now flourishing.  The trees that have readily supported new growth have no particular favorable aspect or landscape position.  It seems very random as to which trees have had the most success.  On some severely damaged trees dozens of new branches have grown over the past two summers providing hope for a long viable future. I suspect a tree’s recovery success has something to do with the general health of the tree before the ice storm hit.  Healthy trees can withstand more punishment.  Ailing trees can take less abuse.

As I walk along I look at the trunks of many of these damaged trees. On black cherries that lost large branches within the highest part of the canopy I notice a weeping jelly-like material covering large areas of the flaky bark. The sap appears to running out of miniscule holes. These tiny holes are causes by some sort of insect or boring beetle.  These tree pests take hold in trees when they are stressed.  A year ago I looked closely at this section of forest and the cherry trees did not display this malady.   I assume some of the cherry trees have weakened over the last two years from poor nutrition; loss of branches and their associated leaves reduces the amount of sunlight that the tree can capture and correspondingly the amount of photosynthesis taking place.  I’m guessing a forester would consider these cherry trees to be of low timber value as the result of the beetle damage to the wood.  I wonder if the long term viability of the tree as a fruit producer is harmed by this infestation.

I come to a spot where a large white birch snapped off about 30 feet above the ground.  Absolutely every branch of this tree came down with the broken top.  The severed top is now slowly decomposing and reintroducing calcium and other essential nutrients into the forest floor.  The loss of the tree top created a huge hole in the overhead canopy that used to envelope this area.  Sun rays now reach the forest floor in this spot and herbaceous plants and woody stem plants have flourished in this small patch of forest floor.  Blackberry canes, now two years old, have produced their first fruit.  Native grasses and sedges have covered about half of the forest floor.  New red maple saplings, only a foot and a half high, fill in many of the voids on the forest floor.

I wander over to a natural spring that feeds water into a shallow channel that drains down the hillside.  This spring went dry this summer for the first time since 1992.  This is only the second time in my 36 years on this mountain that the spring has stopped flowing.  We had an unofficial drought this summer and it makes me wonder what this lack of precipitation did to recovering trees in this ice damaged forest.  Sufficient water is necessary to aid the healing process and this past summer fell short in the rain department.  Although there is no way of being certain, trees that were on the edge of survival might have failed due to the inadequate rain this past summer.

Just above the spring, which flows now after a few weeks of multiple rain events, I notice some white tailed deer scat.  Just uphill from the scat is a healthy antler rub on a striped maple sapling.  While investigating that I see several more piles of deer scat and off to the east about 10 yards there is a buck scrape underneath a low hemlock branch.  Last year white tail deer were very scarce in this damaged forest.  Age-old travel lanes had been cut off by ice damaged trees and tree tops that fell to earth during the great ice storm.  The regular patterns of the deer were disrupted.  I noticed last year that to the east and south, where much lower terrain can be found and there was very little ice damage, deer sign was plentiful.  Another year has gone by and new travel corridors are being developed.  The red oaks, plentiful with acorns this year, provide valuable forage. The deer have likely determined by now that the damaged forest, rife with blow downs, large branches, and tree tops, is perfect escape and cover habitat.  New openings in the canopy provide a wide variety of vegetation.   New saplings and shrubs are ripe for the picking.  Browsing is at its peak with all of the new luscious buds.  Also the deer may feel somewhat safe. Abundant dry branches snap easily serving as a warning signal that danger may be nearby.

Another inhabitant that has not been present in this area of woods for quite some time and seems to have returned since the great ice storm is the snowshoe hare.  Also called the varying hare, this camouflage-by -season mammal has discovered all of the new browse that is suitable for rabbit use. These wonderful woodland creatures will attract an array of predators like eastern coyote, bobcat, red fox, gray fox, and fisher.  The snowshoe hare prefers thick underbrush where it can nest and has good cover. The low brush will also make for lots of winter and summer forage that will provide these hares with adequate sustenance.  Last winter I found more than a few sets of snowshoe hare prints; the first I have seen in about 20 years on this side of the mountain.

As I climb higher on the hillside I notice that the views to the north and east are vastly improved.  Fallen trees, broken tree tops, and severed branches have opened the highest part of the canopy.  Given all of the new vertical branches that I can see growing in front of me I am reasonably sure that these improved views of distant hills is only temporary.  The forest recovery will soon limit my long distance vistas of distant mountains and valleys.

Near the top of this hill I notice a huge tree that was knocked down during last year’s storm.  A gigantic root ball forms a wall ten feet high.  A shallow crater is left behind from where the root ball used to be.  At the bottom of the 2 foot deep crater is solid bedrock.  This weathered gray schist has shining mica that reflects the light and resembles a chest of jewels buried in the forest soil.  I jump into the hole and put my finger on the rock.  A thin layer of groundwater sheets across the impermeable surface of the schist.  This steady supply of water, especially after rain events, aids the forest’s transpiration, photosynthesis, and keeps the trees hydrated; not an easy job in these shallow-to-bedrock soils.

I begin circling to the west.  My intention is to move through a large eastern hemlock grove where there was comparatively little storm damage.  Conifers have evolved to withstand heavy loads.  Their branches are supple and do not break easily.  The wildlife sign is exceptional in this hemlock stand.  There are multiple areas where it is obvious that deer were bedding in this area.  Deer bedding leaves tell tale signs.  Often you can see matted vegetation, sometimes there are piles of scat nearby.  In this scenario the air is cool beneath the dense overhead conifer branches.  The ground is still generally covered with a light layer of frost from the previous night except where the white tails bedded down.  Nearly perfectly round areas where there is no frost leads me to believe that six deer bedded here last evening.

I come out of the hemlock cover to the highest point on our land.  Here the hardwood forest was devastated by the ice storm.  Seventy percent of the trees were damaged almost beyond recognition.  It is mostly a stand of branchless poles now.  There is so much brush on the ground it is very difficult to maneuver through the area.  Scores of trees in this high area were lost to the great ice storm.

It is predictable that woodpeckers will flourish in the near future.  The large quantities of standing dead timber will slowly start to decay.  Insects that prefer dry wood will invade this woodland.  Birds that prey on these bugs will follow.  Pileated woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, yellow belly sapsuckers, and nuthatches should all benefit from this scenario.

I stop and look around.  The first time I came here a year and a half ago my heart sank.  Already there is lots of new life.  Red maple, oak, beech, and birch seedlings adorn the forest floor.  The dead brush covering the forest floor protects the seedlings from being eaten by deer and other browsers. Striped maple has found a new home.  There is moose sign on the striped maple bark.  About seven feet off the ground significant areas of bark have been stripped away by a hungry moose.  Nearby there are more rubs on a striped maple and a large earth scrape from an amorous male deer.  The area smells musky indicating that the buck was recently here and left his romantic scent behind.

A breeze comes in from the northwest.  Dead leaves rustle on the forest floor.  The cool air cools my sweaty face.  I take a deep breath.  Cold air rushes into my lungs.  I exhale. Life is so sweet. Life is so resilient.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in November of 2010.

For more information on this topic see “The Ice Storm”  posted in January 2009 and “One Year Later” posted in December 2009 by looking in the Articles above on top of the page.

  • Barbara

    Hey Bill – lovely to read of your visit to the ice-damaged forest. Your writing and observations made me feel that I was right there with you, looking at all you saw, the devastation now being replaced by new life all around, the different species’ regeneration and also the wildlife that is so much a part of the whole picture.

    Thanks for sharing your day in such a beautiful and meaningful way. Your part of the country is one of my favourites -having visited Maine and Mass. as well as northern NY State and others… used to spend some parts of summers along the Maine coast many years ago… But the forests and mountains call me – and your descriptions were perfect for a snowy Ontario morning.

    Cheers b

  • VanillaSeven

    The worst damage that can be done are human made. Nature will always have their way of overcoming the odds.

  • Out on the prairie

    It is amazing what damage can happen through the chain of events inan ice storm. I have been in a few with the branches snapping all around me.One year I was the only one still with power, the lines so heavy with ice they could be touched from the ground.I started some coffee for my neighbors and as soon as it was done, my home went dark. We sat by a lantern listening and drinking something warm to get ready and make more rounds to neighbors homes. I went out in the spring and looked for my favorite morel sites and couldn’t hardly figure out which way to turn.It was a tough day going through natures jungle gym.This was an excellent read Bill.

  • Emily

    I vaguely remember hearing about this storm. It sounds startling and enormously powerful. I can understand why something like this would be so heartbreaking initially, but encouraging now as the landscape continues to repair itself. The natural world. So many surprises and lessons at every turn.

  • Dances Of Dreams

    Sounds like a great adventure, Bill! It must be devastating to see nature was taking for granted, but we are learning now more and more how to take a better care of it.

  • EG Wow, Canada

    The ice storm was a very sad event but isn’t it wonderful to witness the rebirth of the forest. I enjoyed reading this!

  • Jack Matthews

    What a fine piece of writing. Despite the loss, you are able to point to renewal in several ways. Your last eight sentences are some of the best I have ever read in nature writing.

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