Crystal Forest, Silver Linings.

December 20, 2008

Déjà vu: Another Historic Ice Storm.

In the first hours of daylight after the rain stopped, we marveled at the stunning beauty – a crystalline landscape stretched across hundreds of square miles. Then the reality of the storm’s devastation to the power grid intruded on the awesome natural beauty of the sunlight sparkling on ice-coated trees.

While the litany of damage to the electrical power grid from this storm is indeed impressive - 320,000 of 500,000 PSNH customers were without power – the damage to the State’s forests seems much less severe than the January 1998 ice storm. The catastrophe of this ice storm is the damage to the built infrastructure. Ecologically, ice storms are “business as usual” in the forest.

A decade ago, lurid headlines declared “18 million acres of forest destroyed” across the Northeast and Canada, including an estimated 540,000 acres impacted in New Hampshire. Forest destroyed? Hardly.

In less severely damaged areas, the “wait and see” approach was recommended to see how the forest would recover. It did.

In the wake of the storm there were both losers and winners. In ensuing years, sunlight reinvigorated shady areas where a formerly closed forest canopy was skylighted, stimulating a flush of new seedlings, saplings and fruiting shrubs like raspberries and blackberries on the forest floor.

The winners include yellow-bellied sapsuckers adapted to feed on insects drawn to sticky tree wounds. Populations of ground-dwelling chipmunks expanded after a heavy crop of beech nuts and acorns were thrown next autumn by storm-stressed trees. Fungus found an unprecedented feast of broken branches and bleeding wounded trees. Tangles of broken branches and torn-up shallow roots of live trees toppled under the weight of ice created ideal den sites for black bears the following winter, with bumper crops of tasty berries in summer.

Dying trees and fallen limbs are ideal wildlife habitat, coarse woody debris feeds a forest food chain from insects and mushrooms to woodpeckers, chipmunks and even black bears!

UNH Cooperative Extension Forest Resources Specialist, Karen Bennett reiterates some of the other lessons learned in the 1998 ice storm: trees with less 50% crown damaged are likely to recover and survive. Trees with 50% to 75% live crown damaged require the “wait and see” approach. Forestland owners are cautioned about adopting the salvage mentality too soon. Different approaches govern how to treat hazardous front yard shade trees versus timber and pulpwood growing on a woodlot. Shade trees with greater than 75% live crown damage may need to be removed for safety. Woodlot timber might be salvaged for firewood and lumber or allowed to die, fall and rot – business as usual.

Now a decade after the last great ice storm, the forest is still out there and remains uniquely adapted to periodic natural disturbances. Oak and pine forests of the southern tier and the transitional northern hardwood forest of beech, birch and sugar maple are adapted to withstand specific climactic regimes of rainfall, temperature and periodic large-scale disturbances including hurricanes, wind, floods, fire and ice over thousands of years.

The statewide electrical power grid has been around for slightly less time. It’s human nature to view a large scale ice storm as disastrous. In the forest, a “bend but don’t break” strategy has seen forests through centuries before humans began to regard natural disturbance regimes in more dire terms.

Beyond the ecological silver linings to the ice storm, there have been a few pleasant surprises in New Hampshire human communities as well.

We’ve become a true Community, linked by shared travails.

In my rural village, neighbors greet neighbors at the Post Office to assess mutual welfare and offer assistance ranging from loaning generators and providing supplies of bottled water or trading tips of where to find gasoline or a hot shower. Stories abound of half-price and even free meals at local restaurants to those without power or access to cash. A neighbor who lives off the grid trucked water in a maple sap tank to local farms to keep livestock quenched. Some residents are delivering water, fuel and dry firewood. Others have a windfall of new firewood for next year.

Back home, we use a woodstove as our primary source of heat all winter. We haul 5-gallon buckets of icy water from a mountain brook to flush toilets. We use the barbecue grill to cook dinner and a gas-burner kitchen stove for percolator coffee. Candles light our house and we listen to news on small battery-operated radio. It is indoor camping: no showers, no television; simple meals served on paper plates.

Without the chattering television or myriad distractions of internet access, the family gathers around the dining room table by flickering candlelight for shared meals and conversation. Evenings are spent reading quietly. The candlelight and silence are particularly lovely. We’re snug and warm in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the poetry of a living in a “bend but don’t break” forest landscape holds up a mirror to those of us still living without electricity six days after the storm. Tough, pragmatic New Englanders – we are demonstrating our human version of post ice storm resiliency.