The Ice Storm of the Century

by Paul Donahue

Winter 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
Machias, Maine