Safety part of dealing with iced-over North Country landscape, iced and broken trees
Wednesday, January 1, 2014 - 4:54 pm


Each year we get a half-dozen or more freezing rain events, and every few years we might see an actual ice storm (technically at least 0.25 inches ice accumulation).

But the storm that froze the North Country in up to two inches of glaze between Dec. 21 and 23 in 2013 was exceptional.

It didn’t have quite the punch of “The Great Ice Storm” of 1998, in which freezing rain tumbled for 80 solid hours, but in some locations damage was extensive.

Ice storms happen when a warm, moisture-laden front slides up and over a cold air mass, and then lets loose the water works. Cumulus clouds billow up (occasionally spawning winter lightning), and when the cloud air temperature is between 25 and 30F, the resulting subcooled rain freezes to cold surfaces. Warmer than 30, it rains; colder than 25, it sleets. If the warm front is slow-moving—or worse yet, stalls—the ice really builds up.

A researcher at the Davey Tree Group told me that in the northeast, severe events like this occur in a given location about every thirty years on average. However, there are degrees of “severe.” Shortly after the ’98 event, someone showed me pictures taken in —I believe it was 1942—of Canton just after an ice storm, as proof that 1998 wasn’t so unusual. But while branches lay broken on the sidewalks, lights were on in all the shops. I’m guessing it wasn’t quite as bad.

Sadly, this recent storm caused many hardships, from extended power outages to injuries. Coming as it did during the holidays meant that some travel plans were cancelled, and some family connections not made.

While it doesn’t compare to more serious privations, many people are concerned about trees and shrubs that are broken or bent over. I can’t make the lights come on sooner, but I can tell you the best way to deal with iced-over landscapes.

The first order of business is of course safety. Broken, hanging branches and split trunks can pose a risk to you or others. Glazed branches are surprisingly heavy, though, and it’s hard to get good footing on the icy crust. If you don’t feel confident doing the work, then please cajole, coerce or pay someone to remove hazards.

Avoid trying to shake or break ice from branches. There’s a good chance of causing further damage. Right now there’s no good way to tell if a bent tree will right itself, but many of them will. It doesn’t hurt to prop up a bent-over trunk or low-hanging branch with a two-by-four or similar. This can prevent further damage should we get snow before the ice melts.

Where breakage has left a jagged stub, you can help the tree by making a clean cut. Final cuts should be close to, but not flush with, the parent stem. Those tar-like wound coatings may help us feel better, but it turns out they work against the tree, and are no longer recommended.

In cases where a tree has lost 40 percent or more of its crown, it’s a good idea to get a professional’s opinion. Hiring a certified arborist is the best way to be sure the person doling out advice has demonstrated basic competence in all aspects of tree care. Unfortunately they’re few and far between. If a company has no certified arborist on staff, at least see that they belong to one or more professional organizations. Membership in the ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) is most significant, and there’s also the TCIA (Tree Care Industry of America). Like all professions, most practitioners are honest and knowledgeable. But all the same, get quotes in writing, and get their insurance certificate directly from their insurer. Here’s hoping for a quick January thaw.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.