Bob Henke column: Forests may not like warmer winters

Bob Henke column: Forests may not like warmer winters

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I have been busy plowing snow for a couple days, some at my house, some at others’. I was plowing out a household with a paved driveway and three adult males in residence. I realized I was starting to grump up at why three men could not shovel a fairly insignificant distance with the light fluffy snow we had, but I caught myself.

I was judging based on my experiences with snow removal. Not everyone is that bull-headed, and if there were someone to plow, why not let him do it? My predilection for independence was probably not always in my best interest.

My first recollection of snow removal was when, at age 7, I was sent out to shovel a path so the doctor could get to the house to see to my stricken father. I was exhorted to make it wider so the men recruited from the store and garage could carry him to the doctor’s car to be transported to the hospital. Things were simpler then.

I remained in snow shovel mode through the first several years of marriage. The apartments in the city were nothing, but when more room was required for a toddler and a much-needed bird dog, the driveways became more challenging. One hundred feet of dirt track with a drifting spot in the midsection often involved several hours labor in the night to keep it from getting beyond me by daylight.

The move to the top of West Mountain ushered in a new phase. Here the snow accumulated to huge depth and I had relatively large areas to move. The shoveling could take eight or nine hours and encroached objectionably into work and sleep time.

I made the move to a snowblower or rather a Gravely garden tractor with a snowblower attachment. The Gravely was a beast. One huge cylinder generating lots of torque made starting it interesting. By the time I got it, all original equipment was gone and I was left to my own starting technique, which involved one of my old leather belts, cut down a bit in width. This wrapped around the fan pulley. Then you cranked it to the top of the compression cycle and pulled violently. Usually it kicked back a couple times, ripping the skin from your palms, but once it fired, there was no stopping it.

Modern snowblowers experience problems with broken shear pins when sticks or stones are ingested. The Gravely had no shear pins. Anything it encountered, short of a cement block or live cow, was chewed up and thrown 50 feet out of the chute. I once tossed a claw hammer and set of sockets, left in the driveway by an errant child’s bicycle mechanics, with enough force to stick into the garage door. I cleared driveways, barnyards and a good distance of town road every snowstorm, often through drifts above my head, leaving me, if not a snowman, at least abominable.

The graduation from snowblower to the tractor and bucket seemed like heaven because I was not actually down in the snow — but then I got my first plow. Sitting inside a vehicle, with the heater running, while I pushed snow in any direction, was simply heaven. I still feel guilty about being such a wimp, removing snow without my clothes freezing to me and my facial hair becoming a sea of hoarfrost. Maybe I should get over that.

Although no one worried about me getting cold, as a society we do stew a great deal over other types of animals. We make laws about domestic animals and simper about the plight of wild animals in the cold. Except when we lose a fruit tree or ornamental, we rarely give much thought to the interaction of temperature and forest environments.

In general, at least from our perspective, warmer temperatures and milder winters ought to be beneficial. Birds do not need to migrate as far, food for herbivores is not buried under feet of snow and begins to green up earlier in the spring, and energy uses are not as dramatic for everything from hibernators to active predators because they do not need to overcome such temperature challenges.

The forest itself might be a different situation.

We tend to think of everything in terms of ourselves, but warmer temperatures may not be such a benefit for some of our vegetable neighbors. In particular, the types of forests we are used to from the mid-Atlantic to edge of the tundra, may react differently.

Much of our older wooded areas consists of what is called northern hardwood forest, made up predominately of sugar maple, beech, and yellow birch. Although temperatures have traditionally dipped well below zero, the cold air has generated large amounts of snowfall, which persisted all winter. The result is deep snow, in a real sense “blanketing” the forest floor, and keeping the freezing of soil to a minimum. In most cases, the frost penetrates the soil for only a few inches if at all.

One of the longest-running studies on winter snowpack has been going on at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire for over 60 years. One trend is demonstrated — the depth of the snowpack in those woods has declined steadily over that period of time.

Curious as to what this might mean for forest ecology, biologists at Hubbard Brook have conducted a 10-year study using an interesting technique. Beginning in the fall, they take to the woods to remove snow from large test plots within the forest. After every snow storm, any accumulation is removed right down to the leaf litter.

In these test plots, some interesting differences have been documented. The frost in the normal forest area rarely penetrates as much as two inches under the deep snow. In the test plots, it often extends to a foot or more in depth. However, the areas not protected by snow also thaw partially during sunny periods, setting up a freeze/thaw cycle. It is the freeze/thaw cycle that breaks up our roads and causes large potholes to spall out.

Similar damage occurs in the test plots, often damaging tree roots and even causing overturning of some larger trees. Test plots tended to have more younger plants, undergrowth rather than trees, and, as significantly, the insect and invertebrate species became much less abundant and diverse after a few years, probably due to lack of hibernation success.

The ultimate result may be a systematic shift to the north of the northern hardwood forest, with it being replaced by more southern plant communities in its traditional areas. At the present rate, noticeable changes are not likely until into the next century and perhaps not then, for there are still unknowns. If the shift involves increasingly heavy snowfall because of precipitation effects, the result could be just the opposite, so I guess we will just have to wait and see.

Personally, I think this could be construed as an indication I ought to stop removing snow cover altogether.

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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