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Workshop to look at ’98 ice storm tree damage

August 13, 2008
By Richard Gast, Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

North Country residents are certainly no strangers to harsh, dangerous, unpredictable weather. Hammering rains, hail, sleet, snowstorms, blizzards, flooding, prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures, heat waves, drought; somehow we manage to take all of these things in stride.

But, every now and then, something incredible occurs, something extreme, a weather event so intense that it borders on myth; the stuff of legend. Such was the ice storm of 1998, a period when warm, wet, sub-tropical air remained above cold, dense artic air for 12 consecutive days.

This was not the first significant ice storm to hit the Northeast, however. The ice storm of 1929 blanketed an area extending from Buffalo across northern New York, southeastern Ontario and southern Quebec, through northern New England into Maine. And, in 1921, the Great New England Ice Storm caused extensive damage in southern New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Ice storms that impact forest structure and succession occur every year in North America, but the extent and duration of the 1998 storm, which was linked to 17 deaths, 10 of which occurred in northern New York, was unprecedented.

Dairy farmers were unable to milk or transport milk, costing U.S. and Canadian farmers $12.7 million. Damage to trees and collection equipment cost maple producers about $15 million, of which more than $9 million was lost in New York state. Seventy percent of forests in the affected region were impacted, approximately 17.5 million acres. Much of that forest land was severely or very severely damaged, with widespread reports of ice, in some cases over two inches thick, causing crown and bole breakage and uprooting trees.

The extent of the damage varied depending on tree species, stand age and composition, prior management practices, wind direction, topography, and ice deposition patterns. Softwood species generally fared better than hardwoods, but many pine plantations also suffered major damage. Abundant crown and structural damage was evident in all types of mature trees. Pole-sized trees snapped and sapling trees were bent over, weighed down by the weight of accumulating ice.

When it was over, forest roads were left cluttered with debris from broken, toppled, bent over and uprooted trees, creating challenging access problems. And the large numbers of trees and twisted and broken off limbs and tops that were left hanging produced extremely dangerous working conditions. The effect on individual tree and forest aesthetics, on habitat features, and on forest landowners who recreate in their woodlands and the businesses that service the timber industry were profound.

The long-term effects of ice storms on tree growth are largely unknown, but past studies have shown that conifers are less susceptible to ice storm damage because of crown shape and the flexibility of their branches, and that even though they are more vulnerable, deciduous trees, depending on the species' capacity to produce epicormic branches, have generally shown considerable crown recovery ability.

Poplar, basswood and ash have shown greater ability to quickly and fully recover than sugar maple, for example. On the other hand, surviving trees of all types often present altered growth rates, reduced vigor and, in many cases, mortality, the result of damage that may not have been immediately evident, such as stem cracks or root damage, or exposure to secondary stressors such as drought, flooding, additional storm damage, fungi or insects.

Such exceptional circumstances often call for exceptional measures. New York state resorted to partial harvesting and clear cutting to salvage timber in badly damaged monoculture stands and plantations, as did many area landowners. Assistance programs were implemented to help private forest and woodlot owners affected by the ice storm.

By understanding how the forest responds to such disasters, landowners and forest managers can better understand their options and determine whether or not there is a need to conduct salvage cutting. By striving to fully understand the environmental impacts of catastrophes such as the 1998 ice storm, we will, hopefully, be in a better position to respond to similar natural disasters in the future.

Every forest woodlot is different, so it is important to assess the damage to the stand, as well as to individual trees, before making long-term decisions. The best action may be to thin gradually, with multiple stand entries over several years, to release vigorous understory trees and saplings and protect the site from the advance of undesirable vegetation.

Cornell Cooperative Extension, in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 5 and the Northern Adirondack Chapter of the New York Forest Owners Association (NYFOA NAC), is offering an opportunity to look at the forest management practices that were utilized by state foresters after the ice storm of 1998 in the Deer River State Forest in northwestern Franklin County and to assess what has occurred in the decade following the storm. The workshop tour gets underway on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 10:30 a.m.

For information, directions, or to register, please contact Cornell Cooperative Extension at 483-7403 or CCE Programs Assistant/NYFOA NAC Vice Chairman Richard Gast by email - or NYFOA NAC Chairman Bill LaPoint (315) 353-6663 or email



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