Earth Science, Seasons

A “Solst-Ice” Report: The Season’s First “Big Chill”

DSCN7727By Matt Pierle

In the aftermath of a backwoods Solstice party in Lamoille County we awoke to a small mountain of dishes and no electricity. The longest night of the year had wrapped us in an icy bear hug.

Cold rain followed by dropping temps had frozen everything stiff.  Tree trunks, branches, rocks – anything not moving fast enough to dance off the cold crystalline bonds – was treated to an icy exoskeleton.

As more precipitation came, the ice coats thickened. The substrate for later drops to adhere to grew as the ice put on layer after layer. Classic positive feedback.

Next year’s already-formed buds and catkins, shelf fungi, conifer needles, marcescent oak and beech leaves were all locked inside one-quarter to a full inch of ice. The forest and hill farm landscape performed back-to-back versions of John Cage’s 4’33”.

NPR news from a crank-operated radio reported, “hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power in Michigan, New York, and the Northeast”– no doubt a result of trees and frozen limbs coming down on overhead transmission lines.

Inside, we enjoyed radiant heat from the cabin’s two woodstoves, but as for power to pump precious unfrozen water from the ground, we had none. If our supply of hastily stockpiled water from the night before didn’t hold out, we’d be melting snow and ice for water on the woodstove or the gas range.

DSCN7807We walked outside as the ice began to slink, crack and crash. A cubic foot of ice weighs in upwards of 60 pounds. A tree encumbered in ice can wear hundreds to thousands of pounds of hanging ornamentation. The forest popped and crackled sending shards and ice tubes containing imprisoned woody limbs to the hard-crusted snow below. An ice storm sets up an endurance duel of force on one side and flexibility and tensile strength on the other. This Winter Solstice these competing teams were fairly well matched. Force struck often leaving jagged nubs of branches. Old, weak and rotten limbs succumbed first, but live, strong, long-fibered ones fell too under the heavy pressure.

Hearing the jingle of frozen pine needles chiming against one another and a glassy crumble of ice led our eyes to the top of a 60-foot tall White Pine. We watched in amazement as this tree shed the upper 10-12 feet of its top-heavy leader. For me this was something of a dream come true. It may sound gruesome, but I’ve long wanted to witness this decapitating phenomenon that serves to bonsai elder White Pines that emerge above the canopy of the north woods where they flirt and fling with the elements.

The shattering and crashing of the treetop reminded me of the Phantom of the Opera’s dramatic culmination, “Christine, Look out! The (coniferous) chandelier! Aaaaaaaaa!!!!”

Back at the cabin, the drinking water held out until we decided to sleigh the Honda back to “Burr-lington.” The cultural capital fared no better in the storm.

Days later, street trees are still caged in ice and shedding their extremities. Featherless bipeds are spreading rock salt almost as fast as they lose their footing while rushing around to pick up presents and provisions.

As I watched grey squirrels and winter birds do their best to find forage I got to thinking about the ecological implications of a storm like this for our northern forests and their inhabitants.

A short list of ecological/cultural impacts of an ice storm include:

  • Birds searching for food that’s encapsulated in ice – whether inverts, fruits or buds – can have a hard go of it. The persistent fruits of cherry, barberry, honeysuckle, rose and other trees and shrubs are difficult to access through a thick coating of ice. Larval insects and sugary buds likewise lay trapped behind an icy veneer.
  • Pruning by wind and ice leads to an increase in downed coarse and fine woody debris (“CWD” and “FWD” in the parlance of forest professionals). Implications of more woody debris include an increase in habitat and cover for mice, voles, birds and other forest critters.
  • Nubs of broken branches may become sites of future vulnerability to infection by fungal, viral or insect damage.
  • These same broken branches create hard-to-work “black knots” in what otherwise might be clear-grained sawtimber, compromising the integrity and value of forest timber products.
  • In addition to the inherent danger of falling branches, arboreal birds and mammals alike may experience challenges in finding ice-free perches for sunning, feeding and resting.

It’s nearly a week now since the solstice gift of ice. Temps have risen above freezing just once or twice so ice still hangs from branches. The electricity is back on and the dishes have been washed and are ready for the “Big Thaw” whenever that solar-DJ’d party should begin.


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