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Lightning 1, Spruce 0

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Anyone around this summer, or past readers of this blog, will remember a large thunderstorm that ripped through Middlebury two days after Independence Day.  Several trees were struck by lightning, which I wrote about after the storm.

The largest tree struck was the Norway spruce in the Main Quad, one of the ones remaining after we removed part of the line. I wrote this summer how the tree was struck at the top, and exhibited a spiral shaped scar all the way down the trunk, exiting at the root flare. We didn’t know if the tree was going to make it or not, but had hopes.

It’s not the voltage that kills trees, but the water. Over 100 million volts strikes the tree, but it is the water heating quickly turning to explosive steam that causes failures. (Another blog post, on a lightning stuck Ginkgo, has much more detail) Damage in trees can be tricky, often with the worst of the damage unseen.

There was damage seen immediately. Long strips of bark went flying across the quad, and a scar opened up, spiral shaped, following the grain of the wood down the trunk. The high sap content of spruce makes it susceptible to such long scars.

I’d been worried about this tree all summer, and was watching it closely. All the limbs near the scar started to die, and the color of the remaining ones seemed a little off, but still green.

During a closer hazard evaluation this summer I discovered two things, one bad, the other worse. The first was the size of the scar, and while this shouldn’t have surprised me, it did.

The scar that formed in the summer seemed minimal. While very long, it only seemed an inch or so wide.

Scar in summer

The bark hid quite a bit of damage, and another small crack that wasn’t even open this summer showed another major wound. Peeling away at the wound showed extensive damage, much larger than we’d first thought. Overall, it seems about 1/3 of the sapwood (the live wood beneath the bark that conducts water and nutrients) around the trunk has died, severely compromising the tree.

I’ve seen trees limp along with scars like this for many years, most often in a forest setting. Trees in communities are connected in several ways, relying on each other for support and nutrients. They also tend to be the best trees for the site, adapted to soil and weather conditions. Trees in an urban or landscape setting are under more stress, either from a singular status in the landscape, more exposed to wind by themselves, or stress from poor soil conditions its genetics just can’t handle gracefully.

This fall was a good one for fungus, with cool moist conditions. The base of this spruce showed a colony of fungi following along one of the major roots of the tree. Later that same month the same fungus appeared following a different root. This indicates a root rot, a type of fungus eating away at the roots of the tree.

I’ve spoken with an arborist friend of mine who suggests immediate removal. He’s seen similar cases, where trees exhibiting root rot like this suffer from wind throw, heaving over in a storm. The clay soils of our quad make this species very susceptible to this, spruce not being a deep rooted tree to begin with, in clay soils even more so.

While I like this tree quite a bit, the chance this tree could suffer a catastophic failure in such a busy location on campus is too much of a chance to take. The remaining tree, the large Norway spruce with the interesting trunk, will remain.

Irene Still Hanging Around

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Like a guest that just won’t leave, the effects of Irene the Hurricane still seem to be around Middlebury. Primarily what we’re watching now is the Otter Creek.

South Street-flooding in the fields

It takes a while. All the headwaters that feed into the creek have been slowly dropping, like my own muddy Lemon Fair River, and so the Otter Creek is rising. How fast? The football team, at Middlebury for pre-season practice, skipped the weight lifting today and went to fill and stack sandbags at Jackson’s on the River (the old Tully and Marie’s to you alumni) ( The old Woodie’s to you older alumni). (Great little article here).

Another stream feeding the deluge is the North Branch River, the one that falls along Route 125, heading up to Breadloaf and the Snow Bowl. Last I heard, the road is still closed (picture here), although Breadloaf is still accessible by back roads.

Otter Creek Levels-via National Weather Service

As I write, the Otter Creek in Middlebury is at 6.9′, within the top 20 crests of all time, and is thought to reach peak tonight around midnight. Not wanting to wait that long, I took some pictures downtown to try and capture the feel of a simply amazing amount of water, brown and muddy, crashing through town. One of our seasonal landscapers was a dairy farmer in Orwell for 30+ years, and in his experience he’s never seen water so muddy. Another guy in our shop is at home, an island experience, surrounded by water on all sides unable to come to work.

On Battell Bridge Looking East

Jackson's on the River

The Falls

Looking under Battell Bridge

The Bottom of the Sluice



Irene visits Middlebury

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Given all the flooding and destruction in the state, I feel very fortunate here at Middlebury, and at my house overlooking the Lemon Fair (flooded, but looks like a normal spring). While we certainly had some damage on campus, it feels relativly minor compared to friends in East Middlebury in need of a new backyard.

Irene brought 3.21″ of rain to the main campus weather station, to bring a wet August total to about 7 3/4″ of rain. The peak wind registered was 37 mph, at about 6:30 yesterday. Breadloaf campus saw 5.13″ of rain, bringing their August rain to 11.27″. They saw a peak wind gust of 39 mph, later in the evening than down in the valley.

No major problems occured on campus. Facilities was busy with their usual leaks here and there, but it didn’t seem any more significant than another big rain. We’d spent a chunk of Friday mobilizing for the storm; gassing and sharpening chain saws, getting wet vacs ready, checking pumps.

Monday morning dawned clear and fresh, and revealed a mid September amount of fallen leaves, along with a plethora of sticks. Some large branches broke in the wind, as well as having a couple of trees topple over. Overall, however, I was pleased with the relative lack of tree damage. This late in the year weak trees are already shedding their leaves, or have thinner than usual crowns, so the more storm prone trees have less “sail” to catch the wind. A large limb heavy with black walnuts fell behind Turner house, but other fruit bearing trees did fine.

The immense rain in a short amount of time causes the most damage for trees. The soil below the tree turns to soup, roots lose their holding capability, and trees can topple in the wind. A good example is a Basswood lost right below Gifford, at the base of the ledge. All the water percolates a little ways down the soil profile, until it hits the ledge, then drains downhill right towards this tree. Combine that with the lack of roots on the ledge side of the tree, and the reason this tree fell is pretty clear.

Basswood below Gifford Hall and Mead Chapel

Another tree with a compromised root system was a Poplar growing out of a stone wall behind the Hadley House Barn. One of our crew members commented how the roots went right through the wall, and this was a good reason to remove sucker trees before they get too large.

Poplar Tree at Hadley House

The rotting root system in the wall

Overall, we did fine. Here’s another couple of pictures of some damage, we’ll have it cleaned up in another day or so.

Blue Spruce by Fletcher House

This one was tricky. A Black Maple on the east side of Old Chapel lost a large limb, breaking another couple, but the limb was held up in the tree by an old cabling system, so extracting the limb from the tree involved some minor rigging and rope work.

Last picture-weeping willows always look so dramatic when broken. This one, located behind the esteemed Francois’ house, lost two major limbs, but had the good grace to avoid the power line right below. He and his dog watched it fall. No, the dog was not in the crate at the time…

A Wednesday Thunderstorm

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Last wednesday we had a rip-banger. Thunderstorms developed in the hot summer air over Northern New York, and built as they tracked across the lake. The line continued to build once across the lake, and erupted on top of Middlebury.

I was sitting at home, (I was at work early), watching lightening strike all around us, many up on the ridge of Snake Mountain, some in the fields below. The wind was howling, and sheets of rain poured down. The Middlebury weather station recorded a 20 degree temperature drop in less than a half of an hour, and more than a half an inch of rain in the same amount of time. Peak wind gust came in at 40 mph.

The college weathered the storm ok, but 3 trees took it quite hard. A Green Ash behind Emma Willard (Admissions) took a lightening strike-that was interesting, as it was the shortest tree around, but it was all by itself in the center of the back yard.

Another tree we lost, not surprising, but still sad, was a large Weeping Willow on the northwest side of Battell Beach (the upper Quidditch Pitch). We almost always see Adirondack chairs underneath this tree. The center two stems of this tree had a fast moving fungus that caused a rot in the sapwood of the two center trunks. The sapwood is what carries water upwards to the branches, as well as nutrients throughout the tree, so having this vital structure rot away was a irrecoverable death in waiting. High winds torqued one of the trunks, and broke it away to lean against one of the remaining ones. We removed the tree the next day, before it broke further on someone sitting in a chair.

The final tree may or may not be a casualty, time will tell. One of the large Norway spruces we left in the Main Quad Tree Removal, the most southern one, was hit by lightening. Friends at work in the service building told me it was the most impressive lightening strike they’d heard in a long time. The tree shows a classic spiral scar from the top of the tree all the way down to the bottom root flare. Bark like shrapnel was scattered all over the quad in long 3′ strips, and filled the back of one of our gators. The prognosis of the tree is unknown. The roots seem to be intact-while there is bark peeling on the root flare, it does not seem too bad. Certainly I’ve seen trees recover from worse. We’ll know in a couple of weeks-if the tree is going to die quickly we’ll know soon.

Lake Flooding

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

We’re a little removed from Lake Champlain up in Middlebury, but probably not as far as you think. My own house sits above the Lemon Fair River, draining into the Otter Creek north of Middlebury, which empties into Lake Champlain just north of Vergennes. The lake itself also drains to the north, out the St. Laurence Seaway, which seems counter-intuitive. Everything is supposed to flow south and down, right? Wikipedia says the residence time (the amount of time the lake turns itself over) is 3.3 years. That’s some serious water flow.

The lake peaked a day or so ago at 103.25 feet, that’s the elevation above sea level. It is considered above flood stage at anything over 100′, and seems to spend most of the summer at about 95.5′ above sea level. That means the lake is 7 3/4 feet (!) higher than normal. The previous record, which I remember from a job being a caretaker on a lakefront property, was 101.88′. So all that snow we were cursing this winter? It’s still around.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program has a picture gallery up of flooding and sediment flow that’s worth a look, and below is an animated GIF from the National Weather Service of Hi-Res satellite pictures of the snow melting off the Green Mountains.

Some snow

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The most remarkable thing about this last snow storm on Monday is probably the fact I almost didn’t write about it. After this punishing winter of snow removal, yet another storm didn’t seem worthy of taking the time to whine. But, after setting some records, I thought I’d write about it, if only so students can brag to their parents.

We don’t know how much snow we got here on campus, as the wind was drifting the snow so radically that some places were devoid of snow, while others were 6′ deep in drifts. I asked the guys in the landscape department how much snow we got, and the answers are unprintable. I measured 20″ in my driveway, but that was pretty windblown too. According to the National Weather Service, Cornwall got 22″, Bridport 24″, so we’re thinking somewhere in that neighborhood sounds about right.

Snow Totals Map-click for larger version

This is one for the record books, both the storm and this winter. The Burlington Weather Service office recorded 25.8″ of snow, beating our Valentine’s Day storm of 2007 by a tenth of an inch. (Incidentally, the record storm was last year, January 2-3, where they got 33.1″. I’ve erased that from my memory) This is the largest March storm, however.

In terms of our yearly records, we’re at 124.3″, third highest total. Number two comes in at 132″, in 1886-87, and the record holds at 145.4″, in 1970-71. I can see us beating 1886, but if we break the ’70 record there is going to be some sore shovelers at Middlebury.

Speaking of sore, yes, there are still some sidewalks not cleared yet. We’re trying! The problem with massive snows like this is that our regular plows just can’t handle it. You can only push a huge pile of snow for so long before the wheels start spinning or you have nowhere to put it. For these types of events we put large snowblowers on a couple of our tractors, but that’s slow going too. And because classes were still being held, the extra sidewalk traffic impeded progress all the more. Uncleared sidewalks means snow shovelers are walking through snow from building to building, dragging a snowblower through drifts.

And on top of all of that, a lot of us couldn’t even get to work. For the most part, the only workers that made it in lived in Middlebury, except for snow miraculous sidewalk tractor operators, who I’m thinking were airlifted in. My own road was roughly plowed by a Monument Farms tractor half the size of my house-the cows have to be fed-but the town plow didn’t make it until the end of the storm Monday evening.

Tired of the snow? If it makes you feel any better, the stake at the summit at the top of Mount Mansfield says they’ve got 90″. That’ll be there a while.

This Winter, explained.

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Some of our winter weather is controlled by a weather oscilliation know as the North Atlantic Oscilliation, or NAO. This is defined by the difference in atmospheric pressure between an area above Iceland and above the Azores. Ordinarily, low pressure in the winter sits over Iceland, and high pressure over the Azores, and this creates the Polar Vortex, which is simply wind and weather spinning counter-clockwise around the north pole. Picture the two pressure systems as gate keepers, keeping the cold wind spinning around the pole. This strong low pressure over Iceland also draws air from the south west across Eastern North America, giving us somewhat more mild air. Weather scientists call this a teleconnection, or linking of pressure systems across broad geography.

This winter, extraordinary high pressure sat over Greenland, matched by high pressure over Alaska. This caused a breakdown in the polar vortex, causing cold arctic air to dump southward, on top of us. This cold air spilling south is replaced by warmer continental air. A similar event happened last winter as well. Scientists are blaming our colder than normal temperatures and our increased precipitation on this unusual pattern.  Much research is taking place now on this event, known as a Warm Arctic/ Cold Continent.

Average Pressure Pattern

High Pressure, February 2010

The reason for this is a disturbing lack of arctic ice. In January, there was a record setting amount of missing ice in the Arctic, about twice the size of Texas. In the summer, more heat is absorbed by the ocean, which releases in the fall, warming the air above and causing the high pressure. Ocean temperatures are well documented to influence weather patterns, such as the El Nino events, or even hurricane patterns in the Atlantic ocean. And most weather researchers are laying the blame of the lack of arctic ice right at the feet of global warming.

This weather pattern has been breaking down the last couple of weeks, as low pressure is forming in the arctic, creating more sea ice, keeping the cold air locked in the polar vortex. It may be that the groundhog was correct, and our exceptionally snowy and cold winter may be coming to an end.