Monday, November 5, 2012

In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

The root ball of a Norway spruce uprooted by Hurricane Sandy
Mary and I walked for 3-1/2 hours yesterday (Sunday), covering most of the trails in the Pennypack Preserve.  I was photographing the damage wrought by the passage of Hurricane Sandy a week ago today.  And, unfortunately, there was plenty to photograph.

The eye of the storm passed about 40 miles south of the preserve, but the winds howled all Monday night.  We lost electricity for 2-1/2 days and, since we're on a well, we also had no water.  Nor did we have any heat.  Fortunately, none of the built infrastructure at the headquarters was damaged, but the forests took a real beating.

Just one of over 100 mature trees toppled or snapped by Sandy
The passing of large storms is, of course, a completely natural event.  The forests on the Eastern Seaboard have had to deal with such challenges ever since they recolonized after the retreat of the last continental glacier.  In large tracts of forest, such scattered damage is an expected part of natural forest succession.  Downed trees open gaps in the forest canopy, allowing sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor.  These canopy gaps permit seedlings and saplings that had been growing slowly, waiting patiently in the wings, to take advantage of the light and liberated nutrients.  Gaps and blowdowns allow the forest to renew itself and remain vigorous. 

But the forests of the Pennypack Preserve (and most natural areas on the East Coast), are small, fragmented, and full of invasive plants.  Instead of new trees filling these light gaps, porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), Asian bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), mulitflora rose (Rosa multiflora), and a host of other non-native species quickly occupy sunny gaps and stymie forest regeneration.  We're going to have to be very diligent about replanting the 100+ openings created by the storm to prevent such a scenario.

Estimating the age of a topped red oak (about 125 years).  The blue stains are of unknown origin but were present in the trunk when we cut it.
Last Thursday, I helped the land stewardship staff to clear a large, mature Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) that had come down and blocked the Pennypack Parkway trail at the northern end of the preserve.  Six staff members, one volunteer, and I spent two hours each dismembering this giant.  The amount of time we'll have to invest in clearing up the damage will set back our normal stewardship routine for weeks.

(And, on a personal note, I caught my right pinky between two large slabs of the oak's trunk as we rolled them out of the way.  Boy, did that hurt, and my finger swelled up, got black-and-blue, and bled a bit, but it wasn't broken.)

The trunk, limbs and slash from the cut oak on the Pennypack Parkway trail
Submitted by David Robertson
Executive Director

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