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The 1998 Ice Storm at Hubbard Brook: How "Beech Hell" Finally Got its Chance


  Ice on broken trees  
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  Photos and narrative by Jenn Pett-Ridge

WHEN AMEY BAILEY came into the office on the afternoon of Monday the 12th of Jan. 1998, you could hear her yelling about something from as far away as the basement lab.  She paused along the hallway at each office--Don Buso's, Wayne Martin's, Scott Bailey's-- telling her story and trying to elicit some response from its occupant  Don and Wayne (the old timers) weren't too impressed.  But by the time she made it to her own office, my interest was peaked, and I came up to find out why "We're not going to be able to snowmobile the rounds for the rest of the year," "This is as big as the storm of '38," "Tom Siccama is going to have to remeasure every single watershed this summer," and "Someone has to go up there and take some pictures to document this!".  Apparently the previous week of warm rain that hadn't posed any threats to the station (except the threat of having to pull all the hoods off the weirs) had added a frozen inch of ice around every twig, branch and bur above 1900 ft.  Now it doesn't take a physical engineer to figure out that an inch-thick ice coating weighs more than most secondary xylem is designed to bear.  Add wind to the picture and the trees had no chance. 

So Scott and I collected several cameras and got the old LT snowmobile working down in the barn. We drove up to weir #6 and wondered what all the commmotion was about. There were a few pin cherries leaning into the road, but not much else. Then, after turning the engine noise off, we got our first inkling of what was happening up above. As we walked up the W6 trail, we were surrounded by the sound of wood groaning and popping, branches cracking and crashing down, and ice tinkling like a thousand chandeliers. As Scott said, it sounded like a "battle was going amongst the trees". By the first bridge (at 571 m elevation), we could see that everything was covered with a few millimeters of ice, which had started to melt and crack off when the wind blew. By the second bridge (at 577 m), there were several large beeches with fresh scars, perhaps 1 out of 15 trees. And just as the trail starts to get steep (at the elevation of the throughfall collectors and Fahey's "mid" elevation sites (at 600 m)), the trail ended in a curtain of jumbled ice-covered beech twigs. It was as if the trees had been turned upside down, their tops stuck in the ground and jagged stems pointing up to the sky. 

  Ice on broken trees  

We continued upward, sometimes on the trail, but mostly bushwhacking through the mess of downed branches and trees bending over to touch their toes. At raingauge #10 (at 690 m) it was particularly bad both at the entrance and exit of the clearing. Standing just above the precip collectors, you could see out over the Sandwich Mountains, and even up to the Presidentials- a sight normally completely blocked by the canopy below. As we walked up to raingauge #9 (at 780 m), we looked for trails that lead into NUPERT, the tower and the seep. No luck. With nearly every sapling bent in half and 80-90% of the canopy laying on the ground, it was totally disorienting to try to compare the present with the way things looked in the past. So we just kept climbing upwards. In many places, the stretch of woods between raingauges 10 and 9 reminded me of what Hurricane Hugo did to the forests of Puerto Rico in 1989. Most of the mature main stems remained standing, but every one had lost part or all of its top, leaving many trees with little or no hope for photosynthesis next summer. Some of the innumerable beech saplings in the understory were damaged indirectly when limbs fell on them, but many were not actually broken off, just bent over with the weight of ice. 

At the upper rainguage (#9 at 780 m), it seemed as if a different kind of damage had occurred. Nearly all of the conifers had remained intact, but were loaded down with hundreds of pounds of ice. Normally when you brush by a spruce branch it is soft and yielding, but now it was like a brick wall. The paper birches along the ridge were also spared to some degree. Most of the birches were severely bent over by the huge amount of ice that formed on their many small twigs and fat leaf buds. But as we looked out from the top, the canopy was not as jagged and ripped apart as it had been below; instead, the rounded outline of bent-over stems framed the view. 

  Ice on broken trees  

I worked for nearly two weeks on crews clearing out the rounds trails. When I was helping Wayne, it was interesting to see him realize how devastating this storm was, and to hear him admit that he'd "never seen anything like it". I helped Ian Halm of the north side for several days, and spent most of my time tossing the tips of beech and birch "curtains" over to the side of the trail. In most cases, Ian cut a tunnel through the twigs with his chainsaw, as it would have taken too long to cut all of the trees down completely. We sawed through several large firs and spruces on the north side-- proving that the conifers weren't completely unaffected-- still, the south side was harder going than the north. We finally cleared the way around the south facing slopes on Friday of this past week. But, the trees are still coming down. On the rounds this past Monday, Ian drove from raingauge #24 to #25 with no problems. On his way back, 10 minutes later, he found a large spruce blocking his way. 

It has now been three weeks since the ice storm, and since then, we have had mostly cold weather, wind and even another small icing event this past weekend. The ice is still covering many of the trees in the upper third of the south facing slopes, more on the north side. Since the storm, lots of the Hubbard Brook cooperators have expressed interest in the potential this storm created. Chris Eagar, our project leader, flew over the White Mountains in a small plane last week (but didn't get any photos of HB). It seems to me that anyone who wants to study decomposition of woody debris, forest compositional changes, effects of increased browse on animal populations, etc., has a gold mine on their hands here. I also think it is a gold mine for the beech trees that have been hanging out in the understory waiting to take over the reins. 

With all this said, I hope that all of the scientists that are talking about exploiting this opportunity make an effort to actually look at the forest as it is now, before time and new leaves hide the fresh yellow scars all over the woods. I'm not a psychologist, but I think it's important to really feel the devastation this event caused at the same time as thinking about future science. As Scott and I walked out of the woods on a recent evening, the sun was setting. For some reason, the light reflecting off of the ice made the woods look an amazing shade of deep blue, an appropriate color, because what happened up there is neat in many ways, sad in others.