It is the morning of December 12th
2008. As I look out a window in my house that looks to the north I am amazed at the damage caused by the heavy ice. I cannot see down my driveway to Taylor Brook Road. It is covered with fallen trees and tree tops snapped off by the last 16 hours of ice collecting on the trees. We didn’t get much rest last night because the constant loud sound of breaking trees put adrenaline into our veins and made a restful state impossible. I sleepily reach for a light switch only to discover the power is still off. I check the telephone only to hear dead air space in the receiver. I have an important meeting with a client in the valley and I wonder if he will not know why I didn’t show up or call to cancel. Although the ice storm is still going on I decide to climb the hill to my north where there are large fields and a hopefully clear signal where my cell phone might work.
Taylor Brook Road is temporarily nonexistent. Buried in trees and utility lines it looks lie an impossible to decipher maze. Nevertheless I climb over all the debris and slowly make my way up the road where I can access the field without crossing Taylor Brook. I have to cross about 100 yards of woods of steep hillside to get to my neighbors field. The ice is still forming and as I traverse the slippery slopes a large tree breaks in half and crashes to the ground only about 50 yards to my left. It occurs to me that this is insane but I am almost to the clearing and so I continue. The field’s edges are blurred by trees down everywhere. I climb over tops and branches as I enter the field and find that the slippery grass is very difficult to walk on. It is like a skating rink at a 20 degree angle. Slowly I ascend the hillside, and when I can see the open view to the east I check my cell phone where two bars appear on the phone display. Good, I think, I will be able to reach my client. While I am dialing I notice movement to the north of me. From around the trunk of a large oak in the middle of the field a ten point buck appears. He is only 20 yards away. I have seen him at great distances while hunting, and here I am, still in primitive firearms hunting season, armed with only my cell phone. The large deer sees me and stops. He looks at the woods where trees are still constantly breaking and dropping to the ground and then he looks back at me. He glances back to the woods one more time and then again looks at me. I can see his worried eyes, but he decides I am less of a threat than the falling forest and he just stands there hoping I am not dangerous. I complete my phone call all the while watching this deer and when I finish I walk away aware that the deer is in a high state of stress and needs to be left alone. The deer watches me disappear over the hillside. As I walk down slope I glance over my shoulder and the deer is still in the middle of the field, just staring at the woods where trees continue to crash to the ground.
Not living in tornado alley of the mid-western United States, or along the gulf coast or the Florida peninsula where hurricanes regularly wreak havoc on the natural world, or in areas where volcanoes and earthquakes dominate normal routines we here in the rural northeast do not expect natural disasters. That being the case, when a natural disaster occurs we are awestruck. The great ice storm of 2008 was no exception.
This ice storm was nearly flawless. It was preceded by a warm period that allowed only the surface of the soil to thaw. The storm originated in the northwest, dove down to grab moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, and then travelled along the eastern seaboard picking up more and more water off the Atlantic Ocean as it travelled north. A stubborn Canadian high pressure area hung over central New England as the large rain storm approached, and the temperatures at ground level stayed in the neighborhood of twenty degrees while the upper atmosphere filled with warm, wet air. The storm started on a Thursday afternoon, and by dark the ice could be seen clinging to trees. Pockets of warm air traveled along the surface as heavy fog that immediately froze when it came into contact with any cold, solid surface. These waves of fog were not widespread and accounted for the exceptional ice formation in small local pockets where damage would be exaggerated before the end of the ice storm. The storm brought heavy, heavy rain that went through the entire night. Four inches of rain at twenty degrees equals ice mayhem, but the ice damage to trees could have been much worse if the rains were a little less intense and had more time to stick to the surface of solid objects. Heavy rain flows off of the trees and branches and does not freeze as quickly and so much of the rain found its’ way to the ground saturating the recently thawed soil. The soil saturation created its own problems loosening the soils around tree roots throughout the thawed, saturated zone within the soils. Ice laden tree tops and poorly anchored roots in wet soils is a perfect combination for tree toppling.
For those that live in and near the forest, the shockingly constant and eerie noise of branches breaking and trees falling was more than unsettling. The noise was reminiscent of war, the sharp crack of breaking branches emulating rifle shots, and the loud boom of trees tumbling down sounding like cannon fire. Listening to this is very scary indeed, and one is left with a helpless feeling that your future is now determined by fate alone. Throughout the night and into the dawn the ice attack was relentless. By day break those experiencing this were weary and looking for the storm to break. The shock of seeing the damage at the first light of day stirred reserves of adrenaline. Hundreds of trees snapped off 30 to 40 feet above the ground. Tree tops scattered everywhere, and on hillsides whole trees lay on their sides with 12 foot root balls sticking up in the air creating earthen walls where none were present before the storm. One was left to wonder; when would this come to an end?
The forest is a complicated organism. Each and every aspect of the forest is dependent upon and simultaneously responsible for every other part of the forest ecosystem. It is very delicate in structure, yet appears strong and ancient. To see huge areas of this complex system severely altered in less than 24 hours is an experience that cannot be immediately comprehended.
The severity of ice damage in the forest is determined by much more than the thickness of the ice. Damage to individual trees is most relevant to tree form. Tree species with broad crowns, many fine branches, and shallow roots are much more susceptible to heavy ice damage. Individual trees, of any species, with disease and broken branches suffer in ice storms. Trees with intruded (folded over) bark at major joints are unusually susceptible to ice damage due to ice expanding within those joints. White birch, black cherry, and red maple are examples of tree species that may not fare well in a bad ice storm. Tree species that have narrow crowns, coarse branching, strong branch attachment to the trunk of the tree, and deep roots do well in ice storms. Black walnut, eastern hemlock, white oak, and ironwood are example of trees that display these characteristics and generally survive bad ice storms.
Forest aspect may be a major contributing factor, as well. Trees on western slopes that are constantly challenged by strong winds develop strong resistant wood. They are a little better prepared for extreme ice conditions. Trees sheltered from winds, but susceptible to rains may do poorly in an ice storm. Wet areas, particularly those wet areas on steep slopes, may not have sufficient ballast by tree roots to keep the tree up right in the event of heavy ice. Bedrock close to the surface or impermeable soils may force a tree to have shallow roots and thereby not effectively anchor a tree. This too makes the tree much more susceptible to toppling over under the extreme weight of ice.
And sometimes it is simply matter of dumb luck as to which areas of the forest receive bad ice damage, and which areas do not.
Although the economic damage to the forest can be a hefty burden to bear for those who manage timber, ice destruction is not all bad news for the forest. Old diseased trees are naturally culled allowing young, disease free trees to fill the gaps in the forest. Even age forests may become uneven age forests creating a pattern of tree development that allows better growth and less competition. Areas where damage is particularly devastating may create large openings where light penetrates to the forest floor allowing herbaceous plants to once again dominate the plant community for a period of time. This is of great benefit to most wildlife which are the benefactors of plant species diversity created by clearings in the forest. Coarse woody debris from fallen trees and branches may fill the forest floors creating a host for insects, fungi, and beneficial microorganisms. The soil will be enriched as this woody material breaks down over many, many years, creating good conditions for mycorrhizal fungi and future forest growth. The benefits of a perceived disaster may not be readily apparent to the casual observer, but perfectly clear to all the elements of the ecosystem that take advantage of the new circumstances.
As I write this article, it has now been slightly less than four weeks since the ice storm. The shock of it is over. Only now I can step back and begin to appreciate just what an unusual event this ice storm was. Yes, it put a huge dent in my forest management retirement plan. Yes, the forest near my house is changed dramatically for the rest of my days. And yes, my view of the stability of the forest is forever changed. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would witness something so powerful in my immediate surroundings.
The storm has made me realize that my own little tranquil world is, at a moment’s notice, capable of turning completely upside down. Realizing that we humans have no real control of the natural world can be a literal earth shaking experience. It makes me feel very small and somewhat helpless. I realize I am not the master of my own destiny, but rather only an observer and recorder of events.
It is night on January 8th 2009 and I am standing on my front deck gazing at the starry heavens above. My view overlooks our field to the east. I sense movement in the darkened field and shine a flashlight out into darkness. As I move the beam of the flash light from right to left I see six pairs of eyes, reflecting the flashlight beam, staring in my direction. The herd of deer are working the edge of the field. They are foraging leaf buds that are attached to the branches of huge fractured tops of trees that have fallen from red maple and yellow birch trees in the recent ice storm. I am amazed because usually the deer have moved down to the Deerfield River or North River valleys by early January where food is more plentiful, the snow is less deep, and life in the wilds is a little easier. The ice storm has provided plentiful food which will benefit the deer and will allow them not to expend precious energy that would otherwise be utilized navigating the deep snow as they migrate to the not so nearby valleys. For this winter, at least, we will be neighbors.
As I stand in the dark night thinking about this I realize that there is a strange beauty that this storm has brought to all. And for the first time I feel some comfort from the great ice storm of 2008.