Authors: Jenna Klinck and Amanda Bunce, with Dr. Mark Rudnicki
At the top of a 40 ft. ladder, harnessed safely to a gently swaying hickory tree, UConn graduate student Jenna Klinck secures a tilt sensor that will record the movements of this tree for years to come. She is a researcher on a project in Dr. Mark Rudnicki’s tree biomechanics lab, part of the initiative called Stormwise. This part of the Stormwise team is measuring changes in tree sway dynamics with intent to evaluate and improve the resiliency of the forest edge in storm-force winds. Recent destructive storm events in the northeast have inspired utility companies, researchers and other collaborators to work together on this project, in an attempt to better prepare our communities. In the past, tree sway studies have been focused primarily on conifers where the timber industry can suffer severe economic losses from storm damage, and little attention has been paid to deciduous hardwood species. A critical look at how to best manage northern hardwood forests is long overdue, and UConn and its partners are taking the initiative.
To protect our power lines from tree damage during a storm, power companies have initiated trimming cycles where every 3-5 years they cut tree limbs 8-10 feet back from the lines. This method is much better than no preparation for storm events at all, but it does nothing in the event of whole trees falling. Entire tree failure is the cause of over half of tree-related power outages, and account for 90% of all outages during a storm. Stormwise suggests taking a more holistic approach by looking at not just at offending limbs, or even whole trees, but at the entire forest. By using forestry management practices in these fragmented edge woods we can create a more stable woodland situation.
Stormwise management aims to maintain the benefits of the woodland while improving its resiliency in a storm. One scenario involves thinning the forest edge up to 100 ft. back from the wires, removing dangerous and unhealthy trees, or trees that have run the course of their lifespan. Straight, strong trees and species that best hold up to wind are selected to remain standing and provided with space to grow. Thinning to provide space for the crowns of these selected trees allows a more even distribution of sunlight allowing remaining trees to grow a more balanced crown and also allows for more wind flow within the forest edge. Trees exposed to more wind change their growth patterns accordingly. They become stouter at the base, gaining girth and a more substantive root structure, and over time become more wind firm. In the future, as these trees age and eventually reach their natural lifespan, trees that are best suited for the immediate edge will have the opportunity to take over. Short, strong native species such as Dogwoods and Ironwoods will be encouraged to grow along utility right-of-ways and adjacent to roads. They will maintain the aesthetics and wildlife habitat so important to us, while not compromising the safety of the people that live in such close proximity with them.
Stormwise is novel among research projects for its multidisciplinary nature. The tree biomechanics lab works closely with the vegetation managers at utility companies who have electrical engineering backgrounds and help determine what is needed to keep people, trees, and utilities all working safely in concert. Arboriculture and forestry techniques, often very separate, work together in the Stormwise management plan for a forested edge. The students involved in the project have varying backgrounds in forestry, ecology, and meteorology. Rudnicki’s lab also works with UConn students studying wood products so that when a site is thinned none of that wood goes to waste. Locally sourced hardwood is great for flooring and cabinetry, and the team does much of the milling of the wood right on site using a portable saw mill and other small-scale harvesting technology.
A far reaching cooperative effort like Stormwise benefits immensely from the involvement of the social sciences. Researchers are looking at the bigger picture of power grids and future storm threats, but it’s important to understand what individuals think about the management of trees and power lines in their front yards. In addition to feeling out public opinion, the Stormwise team facilitates public education. The trees that are a danger to us during storms often belong to private citizens and are fiercely loved by property owners. There certainly are people in Connecticut content to suffer an outage or two for the sake of their trees. Understating public opinion, opening communication and increasing education about collaborative research efforts with Stormwise edge management and utility vegetation management will play an essential role in successfully increasing the resiliency of our trees and reducing the threat storms pose. The Stormwise project hopes to span the northeast and involve a wide variety of people and stakeholders, because only with everyone working together will we get the best research done and the best results for our communities.
Klinck’s site in the UConn forest has been collecting tree sway data for two years now. The forest edge has been thinned out and the dynamics of the trees are changing. She will soon be graduating and passing her work to incoming graduate student Amanda Bunce, who is developing two additional sites: one in Torrington, CT and one in Orange, CT. Each site brings different tree species and edge structures into the equation, widening the scope of the research. With each new tree or edge studied, Stormwise gathers more of the information necessary to move forward with possible management techniques for our beloved northern hardwood forests. With the potential effects of a warming climate including increased frequency and severity of storms, this research will provide future forest managers with the tools they need to maintain New England’s forested beauty while protecting the safety of its people and communities.