FOREST REJUVENATION AFTER THE ICE STORM
By Michael Kudish, Ph. D.
The Recreation Committee volunteers, consisting of Chairwoman Betty Wilson, Dave Dekkers, Alan Oliver, Lorrie Rumble and David Vossler, with Town Board liaison John Martino, have put in a year of planning, difficult decision making and hard work on the Kate Mountain Park site.
A forest historian may view the ice storm of January 5th through 9th, 1998 very differently than most observers. An ice storm is a perfectly normal and frequent event which rejuvenates the forest. One must do something very difficult to comprehend this: attempt to ignore all the human suffering.
Balsam fir and the three spruces (red, black, and white) are built with narrow, tapering crowns to first shed and then withstand any persistent weight of snow and ice rime. Therefore, they have been least affected.
Pines, with more spreading crowns, are a different story. Scots pine, a European introduction, is brittle-branched and as expected, seems to be that conifer most damaged. Red pine in some plantations lost many to all their limbs. Eastern white pine sacrifices individual limbs, each breaking off with an explosive popping noise, instead of the whole tree crashing to the ground.
This writer notes that northern white cedar was ''decapitated``, with only the lower half or so of the crown remaining, along the highway between Clayburg and Silver Lake.
Eastern hemlock, with a broad crown which one would expect to accumulate much ice and break limbs, apparently does not. The nature of its wood helps prevent the snapping off of branches.
Trembling and bigtooth aspens appear to be the most damaged of the hardwoods, perhaps because of their soft, light-weight wood. Limbs and trunks tend to break off. This is in contrast to the flexible-wooded paper birch, which bend over.
Red maple, sugar maple, black cherry, American elm, and white ash seem to do things on a very local and individual level. Some trees are unaffected, adjacent trees have experienced moderate limb loss, and still others nearby have snapped-off trunks.
Site: Saint Lawrence Valley
Looking at the ice storm effects over a vast geographic region, from Lake Ontario down the Saint Lawrence Valley to the Canadian Maritime Provinces, the most damage was done at the lowest elevations: below about 1200 or 1300 feet. The pocket of cold air trapped in the Saint Lawrence Valley was estimated to be about 1000 feet thick at its greatest. Above it was the warm air, from which came the rain. On the ground, the ice accumulated in some places for five days, from January 5th through 9th.
Site: Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake
In sharp contrast, those forests in areas of extreme southern Franklin County were only slightly damaged or not at all. The villages of Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, above 1500 feet in elevation and therefore in the warm air for most of the five days, accumulated hardly any ice at all.
Site: the periphery
Those lands which lay in between the Saint Lawrence Valley and the Saranac Lake-Tupper Lake area, I have named the periphery. Around Paul Smiths, the temperature from January 5th through 7th was in the upper thirties to forty degrees Fahrenheit, and the precipitation fell only as rain. The air did not cool down to below 32 degrees until the morning of the 8th, so that ice accumulated for only two days, not for five days as it did in portions of the Saint Lawrence Valley.
In this peripheral region, damage is not widespread, but is instead limited to small scattered pockets of several acres to tens of acres each. Most damaged areas are on the higher hills, between 1800 and 2200 feet in elevation. The most severe damage appears often to be on the northeast shoulders of these hills. Examples are Creighton Hill in the Town of Brighton, Negro Hill in the Town of Franklin, and Cluetts (Harrietstown) and Donnelly Hills in the Town of Harrietstown; Brewster Mountain and Mount Pisgah, straddling the Harrietstown-Saint Armand town line, also had most damage on the northeast slopes of the highest knobs.
In the Saint Lawrence Valley, the lowest elevations appear to be those hardest hit, but here at the periphery it was the other way around: the upper elevations were hardest hit! I suspect that the temperatures here at the periphery were so close to the freezing point on January 8th and 9th that a fraction of a degree made a big difference. The air, as a general rule, cools at a rate of three degrees Fahrenheit per 1000 feet elevation, but this rate varies with wind and humidity from two to five degrees. The summits of these higher hills, above 1800 feet, might have been just below freezing and accumulated ice, while the slopes below at 1500 to 1800 feet were just above freezing and did not. The balance was very delicate and the border lines very finely-drawn.
Why the northeast shoulders were more severely affected than slopes facing other directions I am more reluctant to guess. Perhaps a southwest breeze blew ice off limbs on the windward southwest slopes, but on the lee northeast slopes a wind shadow created a dead calm: the ice accumulated. A study of wind direction during that week is a necessity to resolve this hypothesis.
Site: elm, ash, and basswood
One striking note is that many of the areas hardest hit at the periphery include American elm, white ash, and basswood. An explanation of the distribution of these species will be found in the Adirondack Upland Flora, pages 61-64, written by this author and published by the Chauncy Press in 1992. The explanation, much abbreviated here, is that these trees occur mainly on hilltops where the combination of shallow soils and chronic wind damage prevent sugar maple and beech from offering much competition; lower down on the slopes with less wind damage and deeper, soils the more shade-tolerant sugar maple and beech outcompete elm, ash, and basswood. This ice storm is a good test of this hypothesis: I must now add ice accumulation to this explanation of elm, ash and basswood distribution!
Site: Rainbow Lake east to Onchiota, Vermontville, Franklin Falls, Union Falls, and Silver Lake
This area is north of the periphery described above. The forest damage here resembles the forest damage in the periphery in one respect: the degree of damage from one acre to the next is highly variable. The difference is that here, areas of severe damage alternate with areas of minor damage; in the periphery, areas of severe damage alternate with areas with no damage at all. In other words, from Rainbow Lake to Silver Lake, there has been nearly continuous damage.
Again, the hilltops seem more severely affected than the lower slopes and flats between them. The Cobbles east of Norman Ridge are a good example. Travel the road from Silver Lake to Union Falls to Franklin Falls and note that the greatest damage is on the hilltops.
Perhaps the most spectacularly-affected site observed by this historian is the south slope of Mud Pond Mountain, viewed from County Route 30 at Roakdale: the hardwood crowns appear to have been sheared off by some huge scissors! Or, it could be the swamp just south of Onchiota along the road to Rainbow Lake where the speckled alders were flattened.
Site: roadsides, fencerows, and edges of fields
Those trees at the more exposed edge of the forest seem to have been more affected by ice than those growing in the interior of a large wooded tract and protected by large surrounding trees. Aspens and paper birch, because of their shade-intolerant nature, grow most frequently in these open areas such as along roadsides, in fencerows, and at the edges of fields; these are the often the most frequent species seen by the motorist along the highway, and they are among the most susceptible to ice damage. Most trees planted near houses are also out in the open and more severely damaged.
Also, because aspens easily break and paper birches easily bend, power lines, which normally follow highways, came down in phenomenal numbers. What would have happened to powerlines had the roads been bordered by sugar maple, beech, spruce, and fir?
How often do ice storms occur? Nearly every year and sometimes several per year at each locality in northern New York. What was unusual in January 1998 was the magnitude of the ice accumulation and the large region affected.
If an ice storm of this magnitude occurs on the average of once in 100 years, then there have been about 120 of them since the end of the Ice Age. If they occur every 200 years on the average, then there have been about 60. People live very short lives compared to those of many tree species. Tree migration rates must be measured in centuries and millennia. Ice storms, even of this magnitude, to a forest historian are frequent and perfectly normal occurrences.
Vermontville burn of 1991: multiple events
The forest burned by the fire of May 16, 1991 was also affected by the ice storm of January 5th to 9th, 1998. Such multiple events shape all forests, and the sequence of events varies from acre to acre and from tree to tree. What is unusual here is the severity of the events here north of Vermontville and the relatively short time span between them. See the 1993 issue of Town of Franklin 1836-1993, Volume V, pages 18-20 by this author on the vegetational regeneration following the burn: ''Three Seasons of Herbal Renewal``.
Trees which are bent over, especially paper birch, but are still connected to their roots should regenerate rapidly. Some of the branches now oriented vertically from the reclining trunk will grow rapidly upward. In several decades, these trees will develop an odd shape: multiple vertical new trunks emerging in a line from an old prostrate trunk.
Trees which have trunks severed only partially, and thus still connected to the root system, will also regenerate rapidly. As in bent over trees, some of the branches now vertically-oriented from horizontal and hanging trunks will grow upward quickly. Only totally-severed trunks, disconnected from the roots, will die.
Conifers, especially pines in plantations, with total crown loss cannot regenerate because they are incapable of sprouting from the stump or root collar (pitch pine is an exception). In contrast, hardwoods with total crown loss will sprout from broken stumps and root collars.
Trees which branch epicormically should also regenerate very rapidly. Epicormic branches are those which originate from long-dormant buds in the trunk and in the main limbs. Examples are elms, yellow birch, and pitch pine.
The ice storm has presented a great opportunity for previously-damaged, rotted, dying, and dead limbs to be shed from the trees. Previously live branches, prematurely separated from the trees and now on the ground, will allow much more sunlight to enter the forest. The remaining standing trees will respond quickly to fill in the canopy gaps. Within five years, it will be difficult in most places to observe that the crowns were affected by an ice storm. Fungi and other decomposers will have already rotted the twigs and fine branches. The last reminders of the ice storm will be on the forest floor, still strewn with larger limbs and trunks; it will take decades for these to decay. The fungi will have a field day!
It is a time of rejuvenation.
Michael Kudish, Ph.D.
Professor, Division of ForestryPaul Smith's College
Town of Franklin
You are the visitor. Thank You for stopping by.