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The wind, the wind

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

One of the most impressive thunderstorms I’ve seen ripped through campus Wednesday night, starting about 8:00. From my house in Weybridge it was a continual light show; not just flashes of lightening here and there, but the sky constantly lit as bolt after bolt attacked the ground and sky. Torrential downpours accompanied the storm, with driving rain, straight down. No massive wind gusts in Weybridge, though, at least my end, so I was unprepared for the damage I saw on my drive to work on Thursday.

The Burlington Free Press has a very good explanation of the development of this storm. Thunderstorms build, using the heat at the surface, which rises and is full of potential energy, explaining why most thunderstorms happen later in the day. Wednesday had record breaking heat, in the low 90’s, but a cap of warm air prevented the hot surface air from rising too much.  A rare cold front pushed down from the northeast, wiping out the cap of warm air that was sitting several thousand feet up, letting the storm build quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.

Weather obsessive that I am, the Weather Underground sends me emails for severe weather alerts, and when I got one late in the day I looked at the radar map, and saw nothing but clear skies, with a little storm near the Quebec border. Half an hour later or so, I see some impressive lightening to the north, so I run to the laptop, and glance at the radar again. (OK, very obsessive.) A huge storm was just north of us, and I was glad, and a little bummed, that it missed us. For kicks I set the radar to run a time lapse loop, to check the speed and direction of the storm. I didn’t know about the front pushing from the northeast, so was shocked to see this storm flying south from the north, as most storms have the common sense to go west to east. The radar was impressive enough I stuck a flashlight in my pocket, expecting to lose power.

Like I’d mentioned above, no wind in Weybridge. In town and on campus was a different story. As thunderstorms build, hot air at the surface rushes upward, creating an updraft. What goes up must come down, and downdrafts in thunderstorms are common. When severe enough, greater than 59 mph, they are called ’straight line winds’, and can mimic tornadoes in the amount of damage. To differentiate them from tornadoes, one needs to look at the type of damage, and, sadly, an easy way to do this is with trees.

Middlebury’s weather station only recorded a peak gust of 41 mph, but that is down at the track. The Mead Chapel quad probably experienced straight line winds, based on the damage to some of the trees. Luther Tenny, fellow obsessive, noted how similar the tree damage was to an ice storm, with many branches hanging straight down, as if loaded with ice, broken from the weight.  It was an astute observation, and a good indication of a staight  line gust.

Some trees on campus lost some large branches, and many lost smaller ones. We spent most of the day picking them up, and we’ll be pruning trees for the next several. A large Norway spruce that was hollow fell across Porter Field Road, displacing a squirrel family that didn’t have the good sense to leave until we cut into the trunk to get rid of it, scaring the heck out of the chain saw operator. A huge Silver Maple, also hollow, fell behind 70 Hillcrest, missing everything in the yard. The tree had a 2-3″ band of living tissue holding it up-the remaining 4-5 feet (!) of trunk was hollow. Other large branches fell here and there, but no property damage or broken electric lines.

The tree that took the storm the worst, though, may be a large elm below Mead Chapel. This is the tree that looks like an ice storm hit it. Most of the crown seems to have snapped downward, like the downdraft was right above it. We’ll prune the broken branches out of the crown, and see how much of the tree remains. I’ll keep you posted.

It’s Snowing, and it’s almost May

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

April 27th, and there is a couple of inches of snow on the ground. Enough so I’m wondering if the Montery School needs any landscaping help. It’s not the snow that’s disconcerting, it’s the 3-7 ” additional forecast for tonight. The temperatures yesterday were in the 60’s, and now it’s about 36.

Here’s a slideshow of some pictures of the snow. Click on them for a larger, colder, and slightly more depressing view.

Wind Damage

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I’m happy to say that Middlebury didn’t suffer much for tree damage from the storm I wrote about last week. Peak wind gust was only 34 MPH, but power was still out on campus for the better part of the morning. From what I understand a tree fell on a line near a substation. I’ll bet it was nice to have a half of a snow day-bet you thought you out-grew those once you graduated high school. It was nice to see the students making a productive use of their time. And yes, the guys in our landscape department feel bad when we have to plow some of them over. Like real estate, people, it’s all about location, location, location. Think before you sculpt, please.

We lost some branches here and there, notably in some White Pines near Hadley House and Perkins. Some large dead wood also fell out of Sugar Maples near Warner and Starr. Our vigorous pruning of trees on campus prevented a lot more damage, though, as most wood that falls out of trees is dead wood, and we remove much of that before it falls. Two trees did break some live wood, and I feel badly for them.

One is a rare (for this zone) Lacebark Elm in the front quad. You can see the broken tree as you drive south on Route 30.

Lacebark Elm

Lacebark Elm

This is a special little tree, and fortunately the break, while large, probably won’t permanently disfigure the tree. The damage was primarily one large scaffold branch breaking away from the main trunk, and was not surprising. This union between branch and trunk was a weak one, characterized by included bark growing between the two. As the bark on both stem and trunk expand through the years, it pushes against each other, causing the separation to widen. As you can see in the trunk close-up, the dark colored wood was always exposed to outside air-it is the light colored wood that was the sole attachment, and that is where it broke.

Closeup of damage

Closeup of damage

Proper pruning when this tree was young would have prevented this from occurring. Unions like this are easy to spot, and when removed young cause no permanent damage to the tree.

The other significant damage that occurred was more surprising, and also more sad. The wonderful Russian Olive tree just north of the new McCullough plaza lost a couple large branches on the right side, and will be much more noticeable when removed, disfiguring an admittedly funny tree-possibly the state’s largest.

Russian Olive

Russian Olive

This small tree is more often a large shrub-making this specimen quite old. The damage on the left side was from excessive end weight. As the snow collected on the tips of the branches the main stem could no longer hold it, and it broke. The species is not known for very strong wood; being a shrub at heart that is not very surprising.

Damage on the Russian Olive

Damage on the Russian Olive

We’ll prune away the damaged branches as best we can, and attempt some pruning on the other side to balance the rest of the tree out. I’ve been asked about replanting more of this species, but the plant is considered an invasive species, and is currently on the watch list by the Vermont Invasive Exotic Plant Committee.  It’s wonderfully fragrant creamy yellow blossoms in June and July are followed by fruit widely spread by birds, replacing native plants. While birds do love this plant, better bird species richness is found in native plant stands. There are plenty of other fragrant trees and shrubs to pick from in June and July, but I do like the silvery leaves of this one.

Snow Day

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

First off-apologies to all who were looking for the Middlebury weather station today. As many of you know, we lost power on campus for a couple of hours this morning, and that wrecks havoc with the weather station. We don’t lose any data, as the weather station has battery backups to keep logging. The network connection it is on the station gets all wonky, though, and needs to be reset, which I just got a chance to do right now.

I’ll fill you in on what you missed. It snowed today, in case you hadn’t noticed. Snow reportsaround us are saying 11-17″ of snow. I’m calling it 14″ on campus, give or take. Truthfully, I’m not really sure. I’ve been shoveling snow all day, and have no idea how much fell. It just kept falling. And falling. The station recorded 1.08″ of precipitation, so it’s an 14:1 snow ratio. That means wet and heavy, a three advil night for many of us in the facilities.

What I am finding more interesting is the storm coming thursday night into friday. The Burlington Office of the National Weather Service is getting all excited in their normally stoic forecaster discussions. We could be in for an unusual storm.  Apparently, a cold front is coming up from Cape Hatteras, and occulding, or combining, with another front  right off the southern New England coast. The pressure with this storm is impressive, and is forecasted to bring strong easterly winds, with gusts of 50-60 MPH, particularly on the western slopes of the Green Mountains. (Breadloaf!) They are comparing this event to a storm on April 16, 2007 where there was damaging winds all along the slopes of the Green Mountains. Some of you may remember this as the Rutland “norricane”, which wiped out approximately2100 trees in the Rutland area. Fortunately, I don’t think we’re looking at much precipitation from this down here in the valleys, or maybe even just rain, as the warm easterly winds mix down. Also, as the weather service points out, rarely do we get significant winds and precipitation at the same time, it is usually one or the other.

For you weather geeks, most of this National Weather service forecasts I get from their forecaster discussion-something I’ve probably mentioned before. I think it’s the way various offices communicate with each other, and share ideas. I think it predates the internet-their straight text product reads like a time when bandwidth was measured in minutes, so you’d better write concise (there is an idea-blogs never would have made it before broadband connections, as idiots like me couldn’t afford to ramble on incoherently). Unabbreviated reads like this, but the weather service has a translation page, or I read it at the Weather Underground.

Winter Term

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Hello all, I’m back now. Thanks for your emails wondering if I am still around. I am. I had the pleasure of teaching a Winter Term course, BIOL 1003- Trees and the Urban Forest. What fun it was to join in the Middlebury experience from the faculty side, as opposed to being the staff guy with the dirt on his knees.

I love how random Middlebury is, how it appears out of nowhere, popping up in your life when you least expect a dose of academia. A good example of this was Nancy and I driving home from one of those inevitable but still unpleasant Taft Corners runs (Plato’s Closet and Once Upon a Child, have pity for me with 3 girls), and tuning the radio into WRMC, Middlebury’s own radio station. Sunday night, 4 Pm, and the show was The Jet Stream. Now granted, I’m a bit of a weather obsessive, but I was blown away by the quality of this show. Two guys, doing nothing but talking about the weather for the upcoming week. (who are you two? If you see me up in a tree on campus pruning stop and introduce yourself) Easily the best forecast discussion I’ve heard in a long time, with talk of computer models, trends, and facts for the obsessive in all of us. As high quality as the Eye on the Sky guys at noon  on Vermont Public Radio. My only comparable experience while driving was listening to a book on tape, A Brief History of the Universe by Stephen Hawking. I remember listening to that one and having to pull off the side of the road to sit and think for a little bit.

Another Middlebury random experience was just this morning, while reading Slate. The article was on Lost, and it mentioned another article by Jason Mittell. I thought I’d recognized the name, and sure enough, he’s in the Middlebury faculty. It’s not a small world, it’s just random.

Winter Term was a blast. I was warned by someone-it comes at you fast. Did it ever. 4 days a week of classes for four weeks didn’t even leave enough time to sneeze. The class did a couple of large service projects I’ll be writing about in the upcoming weeks. One was the start of applying to the Arbor Day Foundation to become a Tree Campus. Another was developing a street tree plan for an area in Middlebury known as Buttolph Acres. Yet another was taking the Middlebury Campus Tree Map and running the information through a computer model called iTree to determine stormwater abatement, pollution control, and carbon sequestration, among other items. Good blog fodder until the landscape starts greening up to be sure.

What an honor to work with Middlebury students. It was an experience I won’t forget for a long time, and one should the stars align correctly again I’d love to repeat. 23 students, all smarter than I am, teaching me as much as I was teaching them. Hopefully I’ll get a little random as well.

Main Quad Finished, and some Snow

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Snow, so far, is a very fluffy 12″, and it is still coming down. I’m betting another 3″ or so. The rain guage has only measured about .16″ of preciptation, just to give you an idea how fluffy the snow is, although I wonder how about the accuracy of that. That would make the snow/water ratio astronomical.

The Main Quad work is finsished, and for those of you that haven’t seen it yet I think you’re in for a treat. Here’s a couple of web cam shots, before and after. Enjoy the snow!

View from Old Chapel-Before

View from Old Chapel-Before

View from Old Chapel-After

View from Old Chapel-After

Lake Effect Snow

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Being part of the snow removal crew at Middlebury, it’s a little disconcerting to awaken on a lazy Sunday morning, look outside the window, and see it snowing like the dickens. So I go downstairs, start the coffee (priorities), boot the computer, and look at the Old Chapel Web Cam. Phew, not snowing on campus. Fooled by lake effect snow again.

Fortunately, we don’t live in Buffalo, but we certainly do get lake effect snow in the Champlain Valley. Lake Champlain is deceiving, as it is only 12 miles wide at the widest point, and much less wide down our way. It is, however, 125 miles long, north to south. (While we’re at it, average depth is 65 feet, with the deepest part a whopping 400 feet. That’s down where I used to live in Charlotte, and I can remember getting the heebies cross country skiing over that area when the lake completely froze one year. The lake is about 700 square miles). Lake Effectsnow requires several meteorological items to align, the major two being fetch and temperature. Fetch is simply the wind blowing across the lake, picking up moisture.  The fetch needs to be at least 100 km, so the wind on Lake Champlain needs to be from the NNW, which it was this morning.

Lake Effect Snow Radar Map
Lake Effect Snow Radar Map

The temperature is the other major factor. The air temperature at altitude (850 mb temp, roughly 1500 feet up) needs to be 15 degrees celsius less than the lake temp. The air temperature this morning was about 15 degrees, and the lake was a balmy 43. So, as you can see on the radar map, no snow at Middlebury, where the white circle is, while at my house, due west of Middlebury, we are seeing snow.

There is a great paper (PDF) studying this phenomenon published by the Burlington Office of the National Weather Service. The updated forecast just called for several tenths of an inch more snow through 2 PM.