by Whit Gibbons

February 23, 2014

We all know that adversity should be viewed as opportunity. Thus the recent ice storm that eliminated almost all electrical power over an extensive region in the Southeast and negatively affected thousands of families should surely have some upsides. I decided to try and find them.

Actually, "storm" is an overstatement because an ice storm can be as gentle as a light, misty rain. The catch is that while nearly frozen water falls from the sky, the temperature hovers at or slightly below freezing. The steady precipitation covers limbs, leaves, and power lines, and then freezes, leaving a coating like icing on a cake.

The buildup is gradual, but the effects can be devastating for anyone dependent on electricity. Large tree limbs hanging over decks, houses, or swimming pools can lead to costly damage. Travel on icy roads strewn with fallen trees can be hazardous.

Nonetheless, the aftermath of an ice rain can provide absolutely stunning spectacles with an awesome sound track, one of Mother Nature's no-charge entertainment programs. I stood on the porch absolutely enthralled by the silver glaze on the vegetation and listening to the gunfire popping of trees as limbs and foot-diameter trunks broke like kindling. I was also terrified that one might come crashing down where I stood, which led to mixed feelings as wonder, awe, excitement, and apprehension vied with each other. Northerners have impressive blizzards, but a southern ice storm is not to be trifled with. Among the positives: plenty of firewood is now on the ground for the taking.

From an ecological perspective, ice storms can be instructive regarding how plants can be well adapted for one type of weather but be at the mercy of the elements for another. Evergreen species vary greatly in the Southeast. Longleaf and loblolly pines are better adapted to cold conditions than the more southerly slash pines.

Longleaf or loblolly may forfeit a few limbs, whereas many slash pines are unlikely to make it through a first-class ice storm. Laden with a sheet of ice, their brittle limbs break, and with their more shallow root systems, even a slight wind can make the entire tree topple over. Slash pines do best in Florida, where ice storms are uncommon.

Whether a tree was evergreen or deciduous seemed to make no difference to how a one-inch coating of ice affected it. The day after the ice attack ended, I saw dozens of cherry laurel, a small, broad-leaved evergreen tree, snapped in half by the weight of the ice. Some were more than 20 feet tall.

Others were leaning almost to the ground, their roots lifting up a mound of earth. Leafless oak limbs several inches in diameter were on the ground or still hanging high in the trees themselves. Among the hardest hit were large red maple trees, with huge branches breaking off up to 50 feet above the ground.

Although the following may not hold under all ice rain conditions, I found that American holly trees had suffered little. Holly leaves have several needle-sharp points on their ends and sides. The spines serve as drip tips, perfect conduits for cold rain to run off and a useful trait for an evergreen whose leaves might break if weighted down with ice. Rain may not stay long enough on a holly leaf to freeze, but for many trees a positive feature of an ice storm is that natural pruning occurs, removing weakened or diseased limbs.

Many ecological issues remain to be contemplated concerning how nature's creatures, including ourselves, respond to ice storms. I am saving such entertaining thoughts for the next time I spend several 12-hour nights in a dark, cold house. One upside of a weather catastrophe such as an ice storm, hurricane, or tornado is not having to pay an electric bill for several days. But for most people, that does not at all make up for the negative aspects of such extraordinary natural events.

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