Within a small strand of trees in the New Hampshire White Mountain National Forest, sparkling ice spread out so precisely it was as if it was applied there by Disney’s ‘Frozen’ ice queen, Elsa. What was amazing is that within the basketball court-sized plot, everything was frozen, but outside the plot, everything else was bare. But instead of magic, lots of science was instead happening at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Operated by the USDA Forest Service since 1955, the plot site is now home to a research project that examines the impact and effect of ice storms. These ice storms are often beautiful to gaze at, but are a devastating weather disturbance with the capability to reshape forests, damage infrastructure, cause severe power outages, and disrupt lives.
The main objective of the research study is to analyze how storms affect the forest and the wildlife that depends on it, and eventually, model the timing and location of future ice storms. People are definitely concerned about ice storms because they can have a huge impact that is easily overlooked when compared to damage from, say, a tropical hurricane or a tornado. However, unlike these mentioned, almost nothing is known about ice storms. The research is a way that the scientists can investigate all the conditions of an ice storm under a controlled situation, and researchers can look at different levels of icing and then see what the variable response is from different aspects from an ecosystem. In the continental United States, ice storms are prevalent in a so-called ‘ice belt’ running from East Texas across to New England, with the greatest risk in the Northeast. In 1998, one such storm left millions of people without electrical power and caused more than $4 billion in economic damage.
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More than 10 years later, Forest Service research ecologist Lindsey Rustad was driving during an ice storm and watching cars slip and slide off icy roads. It was that time that she decided that more learning about ice storms was needed to combat its effects. Although her original impulse was to become a storm chaser and to follow and measure the effects of ice storms after they hit, a colleague of Rustad suggested a better idea. Since they knew that they were sitting on the most famous outdoor laboratories in the world (which is the Hubbard Forest), instead of chasing ice storms or waiting for an ice storm to hit them, they decided to make their own ice storms. And so this is what they did last week as part of their research. Fire hoses were drawing water from a brook and were mounted on a pair of ATV’s that traveled the length of two research plots and spraying a fine mist of ice in the air. Researchers used orange buckets to keep track of how much water was applied and gray laundry baskets to catch debris falling from the trees.