Two Writers Reflect on the Ice Storm of 1998

While we humans suffered greatly from January's great ice storm, with more than 20 lives lost, billions of dollars of damage done, and loss of electrical power for as long as two weeks for some people, by far the greatest and most enduring effect of the great ice storm of 1998 is the extensive damage done to our trees and forests.

As everyone knows, trees were decimated throughout the area affected by the storm, losing branches and major limbs or falling down completely. Thousands of shade and ornamental trees in yards and along our streets were lost, some sugarbushes were completely destroyed and our forests may not be the same again for decades. Here in Washington County where I live, one can look out from hilltops and see many large swaths of Larch and Aspen where virtually every tree has lost its top. As one drives through the landscape, the fresh scars of missing limbs are visible on trees everywhere one looks.

Fortunately, not all species of trees were affected equally by the weight of the ice. Maples, Ash, Birches and Aspens faired the worst, with most individual trees damaged to one extent or another. Spruce, on the other hand, seem well adapted to dealing with ice buildup. On most Spruce trees the branches simply folded down on top of one another, allowing a shell of ice to build up on the outside of the tree, thereby keeping the inner branches free of ice. All the heavily ice-covered Spruce I examined carefully were completely ice-free on the inner branches. In contrast, leafless hardwoods, needle-less Larch and more open conifers like White Pine got a coating of ice over most of their surface area, so had a much greater weight to bear.

Unfortunately, the full effects of the storm on our trees and forests is still to be felt. The trees that fell completely are dead and gone, but the badly damaged trees left standing are not necessarily going to survive for terribly long. In some ways trees are like people, with bark instead of skin as a first defense against infection and disease. Just as an open wound on our bodies can become an avenue for infection to enter, so can an open crack or scar on a tree.

The scars from broken off branches and limbs are obvious, but the ice can also cause many smaller breaks in a tree's protective bark. Ice on a tree's branches forms a very tight bond with the bark. When movement, such as from wind, causes the ice to crack, the bark it is attached to cracks as well. All these openings, large and small alike, in the tree's bark then become places where disease, particularly bacteria and fungi, can enter the tree.

New infections of the damaged trees will begin during the coming year. The fungi that enter the tree can cause cankers that girdle twigs and branches and bacteria can begin the onset of decay. Infections that begin in small twigs can spread from there. Also like us, trees have immune systems as a second line of defense against infections that make it past the bark. But the larger and more numerous the cracks and openings in the tree's bark, the greater the probability that disease will win out over the tree's defenses. Many of the trees badly damaged by the storm, with large, gaping scars, will undoubtedly succumb over the next ten years or so.


While considering all the damage to our trees, this disastrous ice storm should have taught us some very important lessons, lessons that go way beyond simply making sure that we have plenty of candles and canned goods on the shelf for future emergencies. For while Nature is fully capable of dealing us weather catastrophes on her own, with this ice storm she had considerable help from humankind. Human-caused changes to our environment undoubtedly made this disaster far worse than it needed to be.

To start with, our pollution of the air contributed considerably to the disaster by badly damaging trees all over the state with acid rain, ozone, heavy metal deposition and other airborne pollutants. Not coincidentally, the species of trees most badly damaged by the weight of the ice - Maples, Ash, Birches and Aspens - were the species of trees exhibiting the worst air pollution damage long before the storm struck. To anyone paying attention, their terrible condition has been apparent for some time.

Sugar Maples, in particular, have been in a horrible state for years, and getting progressively worse. One can drive the entire coast of Maine from Kittery to Lubec without finding a single healthy Sugar Maple among the thousands that will be seen. It is only to be expected that these stressed and weakened and diseased trees would drop limbs and fall down when covered with a heavy coating of ice.

Naturally, heavy ice is always going to bring down some trees and limbs, but how much worse was the damage because of what we have done to our trees? And because the immune systems of these trees have already been stressed by environmental pollutants, how much more likely is it that they will be overwhelmed by the diseases entering through the newly opened cracks in their bark?

Beyond damaging our trees, our pollution of the air is causing global warming, and global warming probably played a significant role in bringing us five days of sleet and freezing rain in the first week of January. This is often the coldest week of the year and a time when we should have received snow instead. The storm is being blamed in part on El Niño. The El Niño phenomenon, in turn, seems to be affected by the human-caused warming of the planet, with El Niño events becoming more frequent and stronger.

This is important to keep in mind during the coming year as the Senate decides whether or not to ratify even the very modest greenhouse gas reduction targets agreed on at last December's Kyoto convention on global warming. When you hear the resounding claims from industry that global warming is a myth, remember the shelters, and carrying water, and huddling around a wood stove by candlelight, and then let our Senators know what you think.

Ironically, utility companies, among the greatest contributors to global warming and acid rain, have been among the most vocal opponents of stricter emissions standards aimed at solving these problems. Now having suffered the effects of a disastrous storm exacerbated by global warming and acid rain, and burdened with the tremendous task of restoring electrical power to the state, can we expect Bangor Hydroelectric and Central Maine Power to become vocal proponents of stricter emissions standards for their industry, or will they continue with business as usual? Maybe, at least, their insurance companies will pick up the banner.

- Paul Donahue

The "ice storm of the century" focused attention on the plight of the trees. The glazed over trees provided a magical background of clinking glass crystal juxtaposed to the crashing limbs and splintering stems. One afternoon while skiing through the forest I paused to listen to the groans and gun shot shattering sounds as the trees responded to the burdensome weight of tons of ice. In spite of the riveting nature of these sounds, they are vastly different than the sounds of a clearcutting fellarbuncher, a forest shredding chipper, or a helicopter discharging deadly herbicides.

The paradox of all this lies in our outpouring of concern for the forest health as a result of a natural disturbance, but our willingness to overlook the long-term devastation being daily wrought upon Maine's forest ecosystems by poor silvicultural practices and unsustainable harvest levels. The impact of a natural disturbance is vastly different than mining of forest ecosystems. In fact natural disturbances in many cases are essential for long-term forest health. Fire is the quintessential example. Forest fire suppression can created not only higher fire hazards due to increased levels of biomass accumulation on the forest floor, but can completely alter species compositions since many plant species are dependent on periodic forest fire disturbances for reproduction. Once such tree species here in Maine is the Jack Pine, Pinus rigida.

The recent ice storm clearly created a forest disturbance, but when viewed from an evolutionary perspective, the trees have experienced these sort of natural impacts thousands of times. The loss of limbs in the opening up of the canopy result in a profusion of new niches which this spring will be occupied by new flora and fauna specifically adapted to fill such vacancies. Broken crowns and splintered limbs will provide a new habitat for invading microorganisms some of which will overwhelm the trees' natural defenses resulting in decay, decline, and mortality. But out of this death comes the release of locked up nutrients which will nurture the beginnings of a new forest.

Current forest practices do not mimic natural disturbances. Clearcutting on a large scale is not analogous to a forest fire. Fire ash returns nutrients to the soil. Whole tree harvesting removes the nutrients. The chipping of slash results in the removal of over ninety percent of the nutrients fixed in tree biomas. Perhaps most pernicious effect of clearcutting is soil compaction from heavy machinery, which causes the porosity of the soil to decline, resulting in lower oxygen levels and decreased moisture content. Invertebrates like aerating earthworms can no longer move easily through the soil and microflora, bacteria and fungi, which are dependent on high moisture levels can no longer survive. Many of these microflora are important in nitrogen fixation and are essential symbionts on tree roots. Reduced microflora populations result in reduced productivity. In addition, the compaction allows more rapid and destructive soil erosion since the absorption of the forest floor has been severely restricted. Of course this increased level of heavily silted runoff finds its way to feeder brooks and streams where it destroys spawning grounds, reduces aquatic photosynthesis, and disrupts natural food chains.

Although I have often heard well meaning foresters say clearcutting mimics natural disasters, nothing could be further from the scientific truth. Good low impact forestry minimizes soil and stand damage. It protects water quality and attempts to maintain forest diversity in both species composition and age class. Quality forestry promotes selective logging which leaves behind the slash on site to decay, returning most of the locked up nutrients to the soil. In the final analysis good forestry does respect the fact that "nature knows best". How can we be so presumptuous to assume that in our limited years of developing "science based" silviculture, we have come to understand the complexity of a system which has been evolving for millions of years? I dare say, the forest is the sage, and we should be humble.

We can rest assured that the "Ice Storm of 98" is just another learning experience in the forests' repertoire of survival tools. We should take solace in the fact that the forests will recover using its own age old medicine. We should be careful that the current perpetrators of forest destruction do not attempt to prescribe they're own medicine, massive clearcutting and salvage logging.

- Jonathan Carter


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