Understanding How Trees Recover from Ice Damage

Research Issue

Field workshops connect foresters and landowners to external signs of ice storm injury and the progress of wood discoloration and decay.

Tree injury from ice storms is a fact of life for northern forests. Every year stems snap, forks split and branches break due to ice accumulation. These injuries can cause or accelerate wood discoloration and decay that reduces timber value. The unusually severe and extensive ice storm of January 1998 in northern New York, New England and southern Canada brought to light that there had been limited research on the recovery of trees with a broken crown (i.e., the branches that grow out from the main trunk).

Our Research

In response to requests from forest managers and wood use experts, Northern Research Station scientists established a “tag-and-track” field experiment to follow more than 500 survivor trees within the 1998 storm footprint. These trees, which represented six northern hardwood species, were classified on the basis of size and crown loss in spring and summer 1998.
To determine the effect of crown loss on radial growth (tree growth as measured by an increase in radius), Northern Research Station scientists collected cores and measured tree-ring width for these trees over time. We found that, although results varied by tree species, northern hardwood trees can generally recover quickly from crown injury if they’re in good condition at the time of the storm. They also found that injury can cause wood discoloration and decay but it can take years for decay to spread from the branches into the valuable trunk.

Expected Outcomes

This research will help forest managers understand which trees and tree species are most and least likely to survive serious ice storms. For timber managers, this research may also help drive timing decisions on timber harvesting.

Research Results

Smith, Kevin T. 2015. Tree recovery from ice storm injury. Ontario Arborist. February-March: 24-26.

Smith, Kevin T. 2015. Fire, ice, and metabolism. Tree Care Industry. 26(8): 28-32.

Shortle, Walter C.; Smith, Kevin T.; Dudzik, Kenneth R. 2014. Tree survival 15 years after the ice storm of January 1998. Res. Pap. NRS-25. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 4 p.

Smith, K.T.; Shortle, W.C. 2008. Recovery of survivor trees from the 1998 ice storm. New England Society of American Foresters News Quarterly 699 (1): 7.

Shortle, Walter C.; Smith, Kevin T.; Dudzik, Kenneth R. 2003. Tree Survival and Growth Following Ice Storm Injury. Res. Pap. NE-723. Newtown Squre, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station. 4 p.

Smith, Kevin T.; Shortle, Walter C. 2003. Radial growth of hardwoods following the 1998 ice storm in New Hampshire and Maine. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 33: 325-329.

Smith, Kevin; Shortle, Walter; Dudzik, Kenneth 2001. Patterns of Storm Injury and Tree Response. USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station, Northeastern Area, State and Private Forestry.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Kevin T. Smith, US Forest Service- Northern Research Station, Plant Physiologist
  • Walter C. Shortle, US Forest Service- Northern Research Station, Research Plant Pathologist (retired)

Research Partners

  • Kenneth Dudzik, US Forest Service - Northern Research Station, Forester
  • Field locations and technical expertise were provided by the States of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine and the White Mountain National Forest. Partial funding was provided by Northeastern Area, State & Private Forestry
  • Last modified: May 6, 2019