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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Ice Storm Revisited

Air Date: Week of January 15, 1999

One year after the worst ice storm of the century, U-S and Canadian residents are still picking up the pieces and counting the economic, emotional and ecological costs. Producer Bob, who covered the storm last year for Living On Earth, went back last week to have a look at the forests.

Transcript

KNOY: One year ago this month, the worst ice storm of the century swept across parts of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and the southern portions of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Meteorologists now believe the freezing rainstorm was part of the El Nino phenomenon. Eighty hours of rain over the course of 6 days left 5 million people without power as giant transmission lines collapsed under the weight of 7 inches of ice. Fifty people died, millions of trees came crashing down. A year later US and Canadian residents are still counting the economic, emotional, and ecological costs. Bob Carty covered the storm last year from Ontario. Last week he went back to the forests.

(Footfalls and ambient voices.)

MAN: Let me get my gloves on.

CARTY: In the woods an hour south of Ottawa, the temperature is minus 4, though with the wind chill it feels more like minus 20. The snow crunches underfoot. And I'm setting out for a little walk with Diana Berresford-Kroeger and her husband Chris. Diana is a botanist and an expert in the native plants of North America. She and Chris operate the largest organic garden in Canada, and the trees on their property still bear the scars of last year's ice storm. The white spruce trees near the house seem untouched, the result of their strong triangular structure. But the poplars are still stripped of almost every branch. Tall birches and sugar maples remain completely bent over, like McDonald arches in the forest. We wade through the snow and the underbrush into an eastern white cedar stand that's no longer standing.

(Footfalls)

D. B.-KROEGER: These cedars are called arbor vitae. This is the tree of life. And indeed, the cedars are the tree of life of this area. They feed every single thing that you can imagine. Birds, squirrels, fungi... The eastern white cedar has been the most severely affected because the crowns are down, the trunks are shattered. I mean, nothing is standing around us, Bob; it's unbelievable. We're looking at a dead forest here. Right above your head is probably one of the oldest of the cedars and that one is standing, and you'll notice right through here all of the older species, the 100-year-old ones, are all standing. But the younger trees are all down.

C. KROEGER: You'll notice a really old oak tree here, and you see that although it's lost quite a few branches, it's relatively healthy looking compared to its compatriots. The older oaks certainly survive much better than the others.

CARTY: There's a lesson to be learned in the survival of the oldest of some species. In this part of Canada, the logging industry continues to covet old growth forests. But those are the very trees that can produce genetically strong seeds, which forests need to recover from natural disasters like the ice storm. Diana, Chris, and I head down the half-mile-long farm roadway.

(Footfalls in snow)

D.B. KROEGER: You could walk up this roadway and it was like walking in a tunnel. This road was totally canopied over more than a year ago, and the canopy is gone.

CARTY: What did the forest look like during the past summer?

D. B.-KROEGER: The leaves were enormous in all of the trees. The diameter of the leaves were maybe 3 times, 4 times the normal size. And what the tree was trying to do is to manufacture chlorophyll. But unfortunately, even the branches were so weak, the leaves were too big for the branches, believe it or not, when it rained on them, and the branches came down because the leaves were too big. The forest is trying to find a way to survive, and it's really desperate to do it.

(Footfalls)

C. KROEGER: We'll go off the lane here, cross the fence, and we'll walk over toward the planted forest. Watch out for all the branches and broken limbs and things that you're going to cross through here, and don't fall into the ditch.

(Footfalls)

CARTY: Watch your eyes.

(Footfalls)

CARTY: Ouch!

(Footfalls)

C. KROEGER: Now we'll be going into the red pine stand here.

CARTY: Tell me the first time you came in here after the ice storm.

C. KROEGER: Well, we were driving down our lane, and we can see the edge of the forest. And I was patting myself on the back saying, "Gosh, you know, we were really lucky. It doesn't look too bad from the road here." Went into the forest, I couldn't believe my eyes. Just 6 rows of trees in, the whole lot was down on its face. So we lost 2,700 trees.

CARTY: All these trees are planted in rows.

C. KROEGER: Yes. This was all reforested, and this is the way that all conifer forests are planted all over, everywhere. They grow straight and they're protected from the wind, so they don't build the real strong fibers. So as a consequence, when we do have a storm, they come down.

D. B.-KROEGER: With the native species you have all the whole mixture together. You have trees that have this umbrella shape and the pyramidal shape all mixed together, and they all hold one another up. I mean, Bob, these are packs of cards that are down on the ground. This is not a forest. This is a monoculture of trees.

CARTY: The dead trees here are the cause of another concern. Last summer, after the ice storm, the fallen trees were still green and the weather was a bit wet in these parts. But now, millions of dead trees have dried out. The pine needles have turned red. The forest is a tinderbox. In the coming months, a lightning storm could spark an inferno, and it would burn very hot and very high. Diana Barrisford Kroeger points out, however, that not all is negative, not even those bent-over birch trees.

D. B.-KROEGER: Those trees, they'll just live in a bent fashion.

CARTY: Really.

D. B.-KROEGER: Yep. That's where you get your crooked furniture from, isn't it?

(Laughs)

We always have to see the balance in things. The butterflies, there will be an explosion of butterflies again this year. The overwintering birds are doing very, very well, because they're drinking the sap. Their winter habitat has really been improved for them. The four-legged creatures like the fishers and the deer have lots of browse, loads and loads of browse, so they're doing extremely well. And another thing that I think is very cheerful for me, anyway, to think about, is that a finger has been pointed at the forests. People are now aware of forests. And I think they're looking at trees a little differently. And that's I think a very, very good thing, because trees are the lungs of the planet, you know.

(Footfalls)

CARTY: As I was driving around, I was struck by how much damage remains out there. I guess I had a hope that Nature could recover, fast.

D. B.-KROEGER: Yeah. All of us have that hope. I said it myself, you know, Nature has got this wonderful way of recouping itself. But it's like everything else. When you get hit too much, you can't get up again, and I think the forest can't get up again.

(Footfalls)

CARTY: So how did you folks feel when you heard news this past weekend of a big storm coming in again?

C. KROEGER: We certainly thought about the last big storm; the feeling of foreboding returned. Little things tend to trigger one more quickly.

D. B.-KROEGER: I really do feel that I haven't got over the ice storm. Actually, Bob, we feel as though we're living on the edge all the time.

CARTY: The forest is also living on the edge. Parts of it are clearly dying. But thousands of young suckers are shooting up in the clearings formed by fallen trees. And the positive mixes with the negative in other ways. The storm cost insurance companies more than a billion dollars, but those same companies are now more convinced of the need to curb greenhouse gases. And while psychologists say that people still feel some trauma from the storm, they also report a greater sense of community, of confidence in facing adversity and a greater sense of awe, even reverence, for the forces of nature. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty, near Merritville, Ontario.

 

 

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