The Power of Freezing Rain

Earlier in the week we suffered a pretty significant ice storm here in southeast Michigan.  It was easily the worst accumulation of freezing rain in at least ten years.  The near-freezing precipitation and easterly wind coated everything in a layer of ice over 1/4″ (~6.4mm) thick. The weight of the ice collapsed tree limbs, which in many places also brought down power lines.  Electricity was knocked out over much of the area.  The power company estimated around 500 line breaks in the county, and many people I know had no power for around five days.

My power went out around 2 am, and I went outside to assess the situation.  I could literally hear branches breaking and crashing down every 20-30 seconds.  It was eerie and disturbing.  At the same time, such an uncommon occurrence was really interesting.  Once the sun was up the following morning, I grabbed my camera to document the event.

Northern whitecedar/eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis, Cupressaceae) coated in over 1/4" of ice. Photographed 02/21/2011 in Palmyra Michigan.

The effect of this ice was simultanously beautiful and devastating.  First, the beautiful:

Barberry (Berberis sp., Berberidaceae) coated in ice, photographed 02/21/2011 in Palmyra Michigan.

And another:

Norway maple (Acer platanoides, Aceraceae) coated in ice, photographed 02/21/2011 in Palmyra Michigan.

One more beautiful shot:

Foliage coated in ice. Photographed 02/21/2011 near Sand Creek Michigan.

And now, the devastating:

Northern whitecedar/eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis, Cupressaceae) bending under the weight of ice. Photographed 02/21/2011 in Palmyra Michigan.

I expect these arborvitae will mostly recover now that the ice has melted.  Unfortunately, bigger trees dropped branches on some other arborvitae:

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum, Aceraceae) branches yielding to the ice weight. Photographed 02/21/2011 in Palmyra Michigan.

Some of the arborvitae didn’t do well under the weight of the maple branches:

Northern whitecedar/eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis, Cupressaceae) broken by fallen maple branches. Photographed 02/21/2011 in Palmyra Michigan.

A couple of silver maples on my property were hit especially hard.  Silver maple wood is hard but relatively brittle, and these trees suffer significant injury in storms like this:

Broken branches of a silver maple (Acer saccharinum, Aceraceae) photographed 02/21/2011 in Palmyra Michigan.

Trees that didn’t break were bowed by the weight of the ice:

Tree bending under the weight of the ice. Photographed 02/21/2011 near Sand Creek Michigan.

Downed branches were ubiquitous around the area:

Broken branches littering the road, photographed 02/21/2011 near Clayton Michigan.

Here I stopped to clear some other small branches from the roadway.  As I stood there, I heard the distinct cracking and crashing sound of more branches coming down.  The limbs in the photo above fell as I stood there.  It was simultaneously alarming, fascinating, and disheartening.  Alarming because I initially thought the branches were coming from above.  Fascinating to witness the sight and sound.  Disheartening to see such magnificent trees suffer such injury.

1/4″ of ice doesn’t seem like a lot, but it adds up.  The network of limbs and twigs on a given tree amounts to a lot of surface area.  The weight of all this ice bent branches down several feet, bringing them in contact with power lines and forcing many of the limbs and lines to break.  The power lines have now been mostly repaired, but the damage to the trees will persist.  The wounds will now be susceptible to infestation and infection by insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses.  In this regard, the damage from this single event will likely continue to plague many of these plants for years to come.

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About Jeremy Sell

Science and nature nerd.
This entry was posted in Botany, General, Weather and Climate and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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