Although it’s well known that ice storms wreak havoc on forests and communities, but scientists are not sure how ice storms affect long-term forest health. But a team of researchers is aiming to find out.

Ecologist Lindsey Rustad is a scientist with the USDA Forest Service. She has been manipulating forests for decades in order to test the effects of climate change in a controlled setting. In the past, she and other researchers have studied the impacts of forest fires and acid rain, but nobody has looked closely at the impacts of ice storms.

“If you live in a place like Maine or New Hampshire, you see these events almost annually,” Rustad said. “And every five to 10 years we have big ones.”

In order to conduct the experiment, Rustad and scientists from all over New England used the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. They pumped water from a nearby creek and sprayed it onto different sections of the forest.

“It’s not easy to study ice storms because they’re difficult to predict,” said Rustad, “We didn’t want to become storm chasers, so we decided to make our own.”rf

They created a light (quarter-inch) icing, a significant (half-inch) icing, and an extreme icing (three quarters of an inch). In the coming years, the researchers will compare the frozen forests to nearby undisturbed forest areas, looking at soil nutrient cycling, wildlife, and forest regrowth. This research will add to a long-term project studying how a severe ice storm in 1998 affected forests in the northeastern United States and Canada.

Rustad suspects that a light icing can be good for forests because it thins out branches and makes way for new growth. But multiple severe ice storms can destroy a forest’s carbon reserves, which will impact whether the trees have enough carbon reserves to refoliate and recover.

The research team studying the effects of ice storms is an interdisciplinary one. One group will use the data to improve a climate prediction model incorporating extreme ice storms. Another will study other forest health indicators such as soil properties. Public utility groups, recreation, and safety groups are also involved in the research.

“Our forests are tremendously resilient,” Rustad said. This brings some hope, because even in the face of severe ice storms—which will most likely happen as the world’s climate changes—they can come back to life and spawn new growth.

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