Learning from the ice

ice fangs 2

Yesterday morning’s lovely, quiet snow turned to freezing rain in the afternoon. In the evening, it really began to rain hard, and continued for hours. Around 11:00, I started to hear crashes from limbs breaking up on Sapsucker Ridge — the side of Plummer’s Hollow dominated by black cherry, red maple, and other weak, fast-growing trees. By two in the morning, when I finally went to bed, the rain had almost stopped, but there was still a constant barrage of crashes. I feared the worst.

ice storm damage

When I got up, I found the spicebush (Lindera benzoin) outside my front door pretty badly savaged, and the top of a half-dead red maple had smashed down through the small lilac next to my walk. It was a mess. But the spicebush had undergone a lot of pruning over the years to keep it from getting too bushy and blocking my walk, so the long limbs didn’t have much support. I don’t think it was representative of how well spicebushes fared in general…

witch hazel blossoms under ice

or witch hazel, or a lot else that grows in our maturing oak woods on Laurel Ridge, the side of Plummer’s Hollow that my porch faces.

icy forest

As I walked around the trails on Laurel Ridge, I found downed branches here and there, but not much other damage.

marcescent red oak leaves under ice 2

Oak trees are especially good at weathering ice storms, as we’ve discovered over the years. It makes sense that species which evolved to bear heavy nut crops would have pretty sturdy architecture.

marcescent red oak leaves under ice 1

Young oak trees of several species frequently exhibit marcescence, meaning they hold onto their leaves all winter for some reason. Even these trees were bowed but not broken by the ice.

ice fangs 1

I haven’t made a close inspection of the other woods yet, but the view from across the field isn’t that bad — we’re not seeing a whole lot of newly broken snags, as has happened in the aftermath of some previous ice storms. The problem is that those areas keep trying to grow back with the same species of trees, preserving those stands in a state of arrested development or worse. Some areas have simply remained open, choked with aggressive ferns that crowd out tree seedlings and heavily browsed by white-tailed deer — to say nothing of the effects of changes in soil chemistry by decades of acid deposition on the thin, rocky slopes. I very much fear that as “global weirding” brings ever more frequent ice storms, Pennsylvania’s forests, unnaturally dominated as they are by black cherry and red maple, will slowly convert to savanna. Those portions dominated by oaks, however, will probably be fine — barring the spread of some new disease or insect pest. (Climate change favors that, too.)

a no-hunting sign with teeth

We’ve had very good success with our deer hunting program here, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle, and one of the few over which a landowner can exercise real control. It won’t stop us from feeling vulnerable and helpless when the next ice storm hits.

6 Comments


  1. So sorry about the damage to some of your trees and shrubs, thankfully not worse. I remember some past storms here that were quite devastating.

    But, you got some absolutely gorgeous photos, Dave!

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    1. Thanks. The light was so poor, I didn’t expect any of them would be usable at all, but a little adjustment in the digital darkroom was all most of them needed. (I also have one up at my long-neglected photoblog.)

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  2. So sorry about the damage, Dave. Ice storms are devastating. It often seems ironic to me that something so devastating to the natural world is also so strangely beautiful to the human eye. As though the whole world were encased in spun glass.

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    1. Yeah, the weirdness and beauty of ice storms has had a powerful effect on my imagination ever since I was a kid. I remember once being moved to write a dark vision of environmental doom after clawing my way home along a frozen mountainside — and that was years before we thought there might be anything unnatural in the frequency of ice storms.

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  3. Fascinating/nasty sound, isn’t it? You’re lucky to still have ‘lecric. The last time it happened in my (unnamed) holler, it was 12 or 13 days to get the power restored. I think I missed hot running water more than the lights, I have a well, so I didn’t even have cold running water, except in the crik. Very cold running water. And what an unalloyed joy it was when the lights came back on! I could hear the trucks and chainsaws getting closer and closer, then, magic!
    Glad you and most of your trees made it. rb

    Reply

    1. Yeah, we were lucky this time — a lot of other people in our area did lose power. Our electric line comes in along a medium-sized right-of-way that crosses the mountain just 100 yards from the main house, so we don’t have to keep the line cleared ourselves as we would if it came up along the hollow road. (It’s one of the reasons we’re able to keep a closed canopy over our one-lane access road, and thus not fragment the deep forest down along the stream.)

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