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It has been 14 years this week since the 2009 ice storm and it still sends chills
whenever I think of it. I remember sitting in the dark, cold house listening to limbs
snap – with reports sharp as a rifle blast – and then the crunchy crash as they fell
onto the roof or made their way to the ground. With ice accumulation of more than
an inch, it was a storm of the century. In Fayetteville my wife and I were without
power for six days; a friend in the woods of eastern Madison County was without for
So, mention ice and everyone pays attention. Schools in our area have been closed
all week even though this latest skirmish with the ice man has been modest in comparison
to the big storm. Of course, remote learning is now a standard part of education,
so keeping students safe at home when icy roads threaten is a good choice. The local
news always regales viewers with photos of car and truck crashes as drivers relearn
the lesson that no matter how big or mean their ride, it makes no difference when
the road is a skating rink.
I’ve been paying attention to ice storm damage as it relates to trees since 1978,
the first year I experienced a major ice event in the Ozarks. Snug and warm inside
with the power still on at my house, I thought it might be a good time to review some
of my observations concerning trees and ice.
That does not mean it should be allowed to remain in the landscape or garden. Ice
storms are a good time to reconsider the shadiness of the landscape, the threat large
and potentially weakened trees pose to structures and how having more light would
affect your maintenance load in the future. In the 2009 storm, I left two post oaks
standing that suffered badly in the ice storm. While both recovered, my garden would
have been better served by their removal when the lumberjacks were there and their
Trees on a border edge – such as along roadways or on the edge of a woodlot – are
more likely to topple than trees in a grove. These border-edge trees often develop
a one-sided crown with the tree extending its top into the open space. When ice or
snow accumulate most of the weight is on one side and it could come down. Often these
downed trees pull a plug of soil up as they go down. There may be a way to determine
root anchorage but I’ve never figured it out.
Wood strength is a tricky thing to consider when discussing ice damage. Oaks, one
of the species with the strongest wood, seemed to break just as often as weak-wooded
species in the 2009 storm. This observation may be wrong, because the Ozarks has
more oaks than any other kind of tree, but if there was a difference it was a small
Of the oaks, the white oaks seemed to fare better than the red oaks, probably because
of branch angle differences. White oaks (including post oaks if grown in the open)
tend to have limbs with wide branch angles which approach 90 degrees. Narrow crotch
angles (those less than 45 degrees) often form when oaks grow crowded together, making
them more susceptible to breakage. Sugar (hard) maples broke up as badly as the softer
wooded silver and red maples because hard maples tend to have narrow crotch angles.
Evergreens, or deciduous trees still holding onto leaves, have a much higher surface
area than deciduous trees with no leaves. Amongst deciduous trees, twiggy species
such as elms, maples, dogwoods and cherries accumulate more ice during a storm than
trees with fewer twigs such as sycamore, black walnut or cottonwood. Oaks fall mid-way
between these two groups.
Pines, southern magnolias and evergreens in general accumulate a lot of ice and, by
all rights, should be the most susceptible to ice damage. But I’ve seen many ice-laden
trees bend but not break under the load, only to spring back up when the ice melts.
This too may be an observational bias because we don’t have as many pines in the Ozarks,
so my sample size is small.
In three years’ time the canopy more or less appeared normal (unless you looked closely).
By year five the canopy had pretty much recovered and the forest floor was once more
passable, with only the largest trunks remaining. Ice storms damage trees in many
ways but they will survive. And spring is only a few weeks away.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at email@example.com.