Approximately 700,000 acres of Vermont forest land received a thick coating of ice on January 8, 1998, a storm Vermonters will not soon forget. The Ice Storm of 1998 left us with a legacy of tangled trees, impassable roads, and closed recreation trails across much of the state.

The January storm left a wide but uneven footprint of damage. In much of the state, damage tended to be at higher elevations on east-facing slopes. Some areas defied this trend, however; much of the Champlain Valley and virtually all of Grand Isle County sustained severe damage despite being at relatively low elevations.

In total, 18 percent of Vermont’s forests were affected by the storm, with more than half of that sustaining severe damage. Paper birch generally suffered the greatest damage due to its shape and weak wood. Researchers at the University of Vermont discovered birch branches on the school campus encased in ice 104 times their own weight — equivalent to a 150-pound adult wearing an 8-ton snowsuit.

The Ice Storm's impact on urban forests in the Champlain Valley was particularly devastating. Urban forests grow in open conditions and are generally dominated by trees which are old, large, heavily limbed, and prone to breakage. The City of Burlington estimated that the Ice Storm damaged or destroyed one-third of the community's street tree population. The city removed 400 trees with a replacement value of $200,000. Initial assessments have identified 40 communities with damage and an interest in participating in a cost-share program for urban forest restoration.

While the impact to public trees was severe, it reflects only a small portion of the total damage sustained by urban trees. Public trees typically account for only 10 percent of the tree cover in a city or village. Trees in lawns, undeveloped lands, and green spaces also suffered. The damage sustained by these individual trees, when viewed collectively, amounts to a significant impact to the ecological and aesthetic fabric of affected communities. Monitoring for hazard trees and tree health will be an ongoing effort.

Although devastating, such storms are a natural part of the dynamic forest ecosystem of the northeastern United States. Our forests have undergone storm events of this magnitude in the past, and will undoubtedly suffer more in the future.

Consequences of the Storm

In the short term, some Vermont forests will look very different. Campsites and roads are sunnier, and there are more scenic vistas. The volume of nuts and berries produced by trees has declined, forcing deer, turkeys, and squirrels to look elsewhere for food. Deer, however, are benefitting from an increase in browse.

Many mature trees that lost their tops or large limbs were hollow. This is good news for insect-eating birds, such as woodpeckers and nuthatches, and cavity-nesting animals, such as chickadees, squirrels, and raccoons.

Looking further into the future, it will take only a few years for Vermont forests to rebound enough to hide most evidence of the storm. New trees will sprout and fill openings in the forest canopy. Mast trees will regenerate and begin producing nuts and berries again. Dead trees will become home for fishers, owls, and weasels. In areas of the state that contained non-native tree plantations, native vegetation will reestablish itself.

The Cleanup Effort

Cleaning up after the Ice Storm on state-owned lands was a time-consuming and costly process. Of the seven parks with ice damage, only Mount Philo State Park remained closed for the entire season. Nearly every tree at Mount Philo was severely damaged, with more than half losing their crowns. At North Hero State Park, more than 6,000 ice-damaged trees were removed to mitigate the public safety hazard they posed. And in Allis State Park in Brookfield, some 600 birches, spruce, fir, and aspen were removed from developed areas of the park, destined for the woodshed and sale as firewood to campers.

Ice Storm cleanup assistance remains available to private forest landowners through the Vermont Stewardship Incentive Program. Vermonters interested in learning more about this cost-share program should contact their county forester.

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