Ice Storm 2013: tragedy or opportunity for regrowth?

To be completely honest, I can’t tell you much about the Toronto ice storm. I’ve read the articles, heard the estimates of canopy loss, the anecdotes from friends and colleagues about the backyard trees they lost, and their dangerous walks through city parks, dodging falling branches and skating down slippery paths.

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Toronto ice storm 2013 (National Post)

I missed it all thanks to my friend Emily whose Christmas goal was to beat the storm – get us safely to our families at a reasonable hour, so she could watchLittle Women with her mom and sister – a family tradition.

From what I heard, not very many people in Toronto watched Little Womenthat night; they were lucky if they still had heat. Toronto was in a state of emergency, many without power, and I was sipping mulled wine in the Ottawa Valley, a place that has had its fair share of ice, a comparable storm, over a decade ago.

As you may know, Ottawa and the rest of eastern Ontario, parts of Quebec, and the eastern U.S. experienced the same thing, even to a greater degree. At the age of 15, I survived the Ice Storm of ‘98. I thought the city looked like a winter wonderland, the trees cocooned in ice. I remember thinking it was really pretty, but the immediate damage was anything but.

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Ice storm of ’98 (The Weather Channel)

It was an unprecedented disaster. There were forty-five deaths, residents without power for over a month, and greater than 600,000 hectares of Ontario’s hardwood forests were disturbed. To put this into perspective, it amounts to about 300,000 soccer fields of forest damage. The ice in some cases was up to ten centimetres thick – just imagine that kind of weight on trees and other structures. It was the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, amounting to billions of dollars in damages over an area so large that the freezing was exceeded only by the last ice age.

So fifteen years later, after we’ve just experienced another ice storm, this time in Southern Ontario, we can look back and ask, “was the ice storm of ‘98 really that bad?” Well in terms of the lives that were lost, the money that was spent, yes it was horrible, but looking at the impact on the forest landscape, ecologically speaking, maybe not as bad as we had expected.

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Downed transmission tower in Quebec during the ’98 ice storm (Global news)

There was a lot of new growth that spring. The ice pruned some of the trees where they needed it and mortality created new openings for young shade-tolerant species like sugar maple, American beech, and hemlock saplings. Much of the new growth seen after the ice storm of ’98 was due to the warm and wet spring and summer that followed. There was still a lot of mortality at the stand level, including insect infestations attacking stressed trees and loss of harvestable timber in red pine plantations. However, in terms of the ecology of the overarching landscape, the warm and wet growing conditions that spring, succeeded in turning a tragic storm into an opportunity for regeneration.

As for Toronto, we’ll just have to see what the conditions will be and how the forest will respond. The boulevard trees that were heavily damaged, will definitely need to be replanted. Norway maple, the most common tree in Toronto isn’t as resilient as its native sugar maple when it comes to ice stress, so planting native species that have evolved in cold climates, can be a safe bet for preparing for the next storm. Before spring arrives, broken branches should be pruned. Residents can create better growing conditions for stressed trees by watering and mulching – especially in the case that it’s a particularly dry season that follows.

In the meantime, let’s cross our fingers that it’ll be a rainy spring. I hope that we can eventually look back on the 2013 ice storm, just like that of ’98, and agree that it was intense, but in the grand ecological scheme of things, not all that bad.

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For tips on how you can help vulnerable trees rebound from the ice storm: visitCanadian Gardening Magazine.

Research shows eastern Ontario’s forests are springing back from ice damage -Ontario Forest Research Institute

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