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Want to study ice storms? Create your own

  • Scientists at the U.S. Forest Service's Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in Thornton use fire hoses attached to ATVs to create ice storms in research plots. The ongoing research helps scientists better understand the immediate and long-term impact of ice storms on forests. One of the researchers, Dr. John Campbell, will speak about the project Feb. 16, 7 p.m., at Keene State College's Putnam Science Center. Photo by Joe Klementovich—Joe Klementovich

  • Scientists at the U.S. Forest Service's Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in Thornton use fire hoses attached to ATVs to create ice storms in research plots. The ongoing research helps scientists better understand the immediate and long-term impact of ice storms on forests. One of the researchers, Dr. John Campbell, will speak about the project Feb. 16, 7 p.m., at Keene State College's Putnam Science Center. Photo by Joe Klementovich—Joe Klementovich


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

You surely remember the night of December 11, 2008. It was a Thursday night and it seemed like the whole world was crashing down around us. Coated in heavy ice, trees and limbs were falling across the Northeast, hitting the Monadnock Region especially hard.

Dr. John Campbell not only remembers the storm, he’s been trying to recreate it. At least in an experimental setting on a very small scale.

Campbell is a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Durham. When the December 2008 storm hit, Campbell was living in downtown Portsmouth.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Campbell said. “Losing power for three days in downtown Portsmouth, not even living out on the ends of the utility lines, but right in a downtown in southern New Hampshire.”

A year later, one of Campbell’s fellow research scientists, Lindsay Rustad, had returned to New Hampshire after a harrowing drive through an ice storm in western Massachusetts. The experience gave Rustad an idea, which she offered to Campbell.

With ice storms being terribly hard to research, there’s little data about their behavior and impact on the forest. Rustad suggested creating realistic, mini-ice storms in a controlled setting, where they can be studied before and after a variety of intensities.

Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

And what better place to do it than at the U.S. Forest Service’s Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in Thornton, N.H.? This is one of the most studied forests in the Northeast, where the effects of air pollution became well-documented, bringing the term “acid rain” into kitchens and Congress.

Hubbard Brook’s forest was hit hard by the ice storm of 1998. Researchers have studied the after-effects of the storm, but didn’t have the chance to collect data before it struck, leaving a big hole in the scientific process.

So, starting in 2009, Campbell, Rustad, and their team began testing ways to create ice storms at Hubbard Brook. By 2016 – with fire hoses, all-terrain vehicles and MacGyver-like resourcefulness – they were ready to use their protocol to study the impact of ice storms on forests.

Before producing their manmade ice storms, researchers designated several plots the size of basketball courts, where they measured nearly every tree, limb and twig. They know every twig in there.

When conditions were right last winter and as recently as this month, they’ve used fire hoses attached to all-terrain vehicles, coating trees in ¼, ½ and ¾-inches of ice, depending on the plot.

Measuring Icy Tangles

For perspective, the 2008 ice storm coated southern New England in ½ to 1 inch of ice, with some places receiving as much as 1½ inches of accretions on limbs. The weight brought down whole trees, limbs and utility lines across the region. Our forests are still littered with the tops and limbs of trees felled in those days and nights, especially in the higher elevations where accretions were thickest.

Creating the storms is a messy, cold and wet affair, with Campbell and other researchers getting coated head-to-toe in ice in marine bad-weather gear. After their man-made storms, their challenge continues as they quickly enter the thick, icy tangles and start measuring, sometimes as limbs crash down around them.

With very little exception, the manmade ice storms are remarkably like the real thing, Campbell said.

Aside from the science of measuring before-and-after effects of the manmade ice storms, funding for the research also allows scientists to:

Use climate projection models to study the predicted frequency of ice storms;

Continue studying plots after the 1998 ice storm to measure changes in forest composition; and

Model future changes in forests that are affected by ice storms.

There’s a great deal of interest in the project, Campbell said, not just because of the cool way they’re creating ice storms, but also for the practical things learned. Utility companies are participating in stakeholder meetings because they’re learning how ice storms impact trees and limbs under different amounts of ice thickness. Likewise, emergency service providers and weather forecasters are learning what to expect under certain conditions.

We don’t know when the next winter ice storm will strike, but hopefully we’ll be ready with our batteries, candles, generators and cameras. They’re events that are annoying, expensive, inconvenient, sometimes terrifying and remarkably beautiful. If it’s anything like the 2008 storm, we’ll long remember where we were.

Dr. John Campbell, PhD., will talk about this cool research on Thursday, Feb. 16, 7 p.m., at Keene State College’s Putnam Science Center. His talk is sponsored by the Harris Center for Conservation Education and Keene State College.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.