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Science Nation: Scientists Create Ice Storms to Study Nature's Chilly Response

5 minutes

(Describer) Streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation.

(Describer) Two people wearing hard hats walk through a forest.

(narrator) Biogeochemist Charlie Driscoll and forest ecologist Lindsey Rustad are taking a hike through the woods, surveying their handiwork, you might say. This quadrant over here-- this is a big litter decomposition--

(narrator) Supported by the National Science Foundation, they're part of a team of researchers at the New Hampshire Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest that wants to know about the impact of ice storms on forests like this. Easier said than done, since such storms are so hard to predict.

(Describer) Several people walk over snow in the forest.

(woman) Wow. Lindsey, look at that.

(narrator) So they make one. I don't think it's been done before.

(Describer) Cold water is sprayed through a hose. Driscoll:

[machine humming]

How do we quantify the icing level? The accumulation of ice is critical in overall damage. We wanted to be very quantitative.

(Describer) Rustad:

We had pumps down in the Hubbard Brook, pumping water from the brook through a series of hoses. Two of these vehicles went along either side of our experimental plots, spraying water 100 feet into the air, came down as a fine mist-- freezing conditions-- and it froze on contact. These ornaments up there are getting ice...

(narrator) They set up 10 plots, each about the size of a basketball court. Some got no ice, some a quarter inch, which is pretty light, some half an inch, equivalent to a major storm, and some got three quarters of an inch, considered extreme.

(Describer) Without snow, branches are cut.

Now they're into a multi-year effort to monitor how the forest is responding.

(Driscoll) What happens in an ice storm? It's a catastrophic event. It opens up the canopy. Some trees are able to recover from this. Some trees are not able to recover. It's an opportunity for the forest to rebuild itself.

(Describer) A man carries a cooler of equipment.

(narrator) On this day, they measured water nutrient levels from the soil.

(Rustad) When you damage the canopy, those trees are not taking up as much nitrogen and carbon and calcium. If they're not taking it from the soil, it's in the soil and it can be leached into our streams and our lakes.

(narrator) They gather dead twigs and branches that fall from the treetops, carefully weighing how much detritus is coming down from the damaged canopy, and they measure the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases generated by soil microbes and plants' root systems released from the forest floor.

(Rustad) With a catastrophic disturbance like an ice storm, you change the carbon cycling. If you tweak that soil respiration, even just a little bit because it's such a big number, it can have a significant impact.

(Describer) Soil is sifted.

(narrator) The goal is to quantify every bit of science data they possibly can about how this ecosystem is changing in the aftermath of the experiment-- the trees, the soil, the water, even behavior of birds and insects.

(Rustad) We're doing things like measuring the temperature of the air, of the soil, the moisture of the soil-- so a cascade of physical impacts.

(narrator) Driscoll says as our climate changes, we can expect more catastrophic weather events-- not just ice storms, but hurricanes, floods, and drought too.

(Driscoll) As a society, we'll to have to deal with them at all levels and types. The more we know about them, we're better prepared to understand their effects, to respond to them. It will be in our best interest.

(narrator) Simulating an ice storm to be better prepared for the real thing-- that's way cool.

(Describer) The globe turns.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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Anyone who has ever driven in freezing rain knows all too well the potential hazards of an ice storm. These powerful winter weather events are also capable of catastrophic impacts on forest ecosystems. Syracuse University bio-geochemist Charley Driscoll and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service ecologist Lindsey Rustad are part of a team to monitor how a forest ecosystem responds to and recovers from ice storms. Part of the “Science Nation” series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

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