Ice Damage to Trees Presents Difficult Decisions

East Lansing, MI (March 31, 2014) – This past winter was especially brutal across the Midwest and up to Maine. At Michigan State University, where a Christmas week storm left a heavy layer of ice on trees snapping limbs and splitting trunks, biology professor Frank Telewski is working with other experts to study which kinds of trees best withstand severe weather and ways to make them less vulnerable. But the results present communities with difficult decisions.

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In this Feb. 26, 2014 photo Frank Telewski, professor of plant biology at Michigan State University, examines a red maple tree that was damaged on the university campus in East Lansing, Mich., during a December 2013 ice storm. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/John Flesher

Telewski’s project could present communities with difficult questions of whether to give up on trees that have long been fixtures of their landscape in favor of less spectacular stalwarts that can bear up under strain like a well-conditioned athlete.

“If we can do something to reduce the potential damage, it’s going to be a great service to the country — make us better prepared to survive these storms,” said Telewski. He and other researchers are using tape measurers and computers to study what happens to trees after an icy barrage.

Heavy snow brings its challenges every winter, but ice storms are especially ruinous. Ice layers can boost weight on limbs by up to 100 times, shredding them or uprooting entire trees, a risk to life and property as they topple onto buildings and vehicles. Researchers say losses regularly exceed $225 million annually.

The just-concluded winter, in which ice storms wreaked havoc across much of the eastern U.S., may spur more city parks departments, subdivision developers and even individual homeowners to reduce future losses by planting different trees.

ice damage“Strike teams” of U.S. Forest Service and state experts have been pushing the idea with officials in storm-damaged communities.

“It really doesn’t sink in until a community has a storm and tries to recover,” said John Parry, a Forest Service urban forester.

Some municipal officials, however, question whether ice resistance should be such a priority. Others say factors like resistance to disease and pests are uppermost concerns.

Telewski, the Michigan State professor, insists that species selection can make a difference. His team’s research also suggests that pruning trees can provide the same benefits as exercise for humans.

“Done properly, pruning can be almost like physical therapy, because now the branches may be able to move more in the wind and actually strengthen themselves,” Telewski said. “They build up more woody tissue.” The goal is to plant trees that live a long time.

Read the complete article and learn more about Telewski’s research: “In ice-damaged towns, officials face hard decisions about planting trees that withstand storms,” by John Flesher, Associated Press