Our barely green lawns across campus belie a hard fact this summer-it’s been dry. Very, very dry.
Funny, considering how wet it was in late spring, when it was almost too wet to do anything outside. The High Plains Regional Climate Center (kick ass website for weather geeks!) maps show we have 25% of the normal precipitation in the last two months, that’s a 6″ deficit of rainfall.
A general rule of thumb I can’t find a reference for but I always tell anyone is that Vermont plants need a 1/2″ of rainfall per week for optimum growth. We’ve had only about 1″ in all of August, and only 1″ in July. Most of that falling in one day, leaving our clay soils to dry out and become nearly resistant to small rainfalls.
The early leaves you see falling are signs of that. Trees in temperature zones such as ours develop wide, spreading root systems, not going too deep in search of water or nutrients. In fact, much of our campus is on ledge, with very little topsoil available, meaning plants need to go shallow and wide to root into the ground.
(My unsubstantiated theory is that Middlebury was founded where it is because of the ledge-poor soils make poor farmland, and why waste valuable agricultural soils and farmland on something as unimportant as a college? Farmland in 1825 was precious, hard earned space, so let the geeks have the hill, we’ve got crops to harvest)
These wide spreading root systems enable fast, efficient uptake of water and nutrients in poor soils and a short growing season. In ordinary years, this is ideal, but in dry years, this strategy can be costly. As you can imagine, the shallow soils dry quickly, and the plants don’t have the deep extensive root systems to find moisture in the lower soil profiles. Trees are gamblers, and they’ve got a losing hand this year.
Flowers and other perennials show stress by wilting-the curling of the leaves cut down on the loss of water through the stomata (transpiration, if you want to flash back to high school biology). Trees react like that too, but also have the ability to shed leaves. We are seeing this now, and it may cause an early fall. The inner leaves on trees turn color and fall away, a survival mechanism. Inner leaves in the crown are not as efficient, they don’t photosynthesize as well, and therefore are not as “useful” to the tree as the outer, younger leaves. In desperation, the tree will shed the inefficient leaves ,brutally choosing the younger leaves to use the precious remaining water they have remaining.
We’ve had a little bit of rain this weekend, and more is coming, so luck it will come in time to prevent a wholesale dropping of leaves before your parents come up for fall family weekend. Snake Mountain above my house is starting to turn brown along the ledges, though, though, so lower expectations while you can.
January is starting out with a bang-it didn’t get above 0 degrees for several days last week, and this morning was 50 degrees and raining. Rain of biblical proportions, with the rain gauge at the track saying .88″ of rain, most of it falling between 7:30-10:30, up to a half inch an hour at times. I’m not going to answer the Middbeat question of “What’s the deal with the weather”, except to say we’ve got some lower atlantic moisture sliding up the coast on the side of the polar vortex in the middle of the country. When low pressure systems like that get squeezed on the sides by intense high pressure, all sorts of funky things happen, like lots of quick rain, or high winds. We had both.
And with the deep freeze last week, storm drains were plugged, iced over, or covered in snowbanks. Rain can’t soak into frozen ground, taxing storm drains even when they are available and working. The landscape department went into overdrive, breaking up ice dams and opening storm drains. The most worrisome spot was solved quickly, that of Voter basement. You know, (or maybe you don’t), that place with all the computer servers. That would be a heck of an excuse for a banner web crash, wouldn’t it?
The northwest door of McCullough, the one that heads either straight towards Munroe and Mead Chapel, or head up the stairs towards Stewart, sits at the bottom of that whole slope below Mead. That entire side slope seems to drain right towards that door. There are several storm drains near there, including what turns out to be a critical one to the right of the door way. This is Jaime and Buzz, wearing hip waders, looking for the storm drain with ice picks and an iron bar. (As always, click on the picture to enlarge)
And this is the doorway in question, where water was flowing a foot deep through the doors and down the stairs. We actually got the backhoe in there and broke up the iced over snow banks around the entry, and got the water moving down. The plastic and snow was acting like a temporary dam blocking some of the water.
The Gamut room, in the Gifford pit, started flooding too. That’s Buzz and Jaime again, looking for the tiny little drain somewhere at their feet.
Yes, I’m the one taking all these pictures. Only barn boots, no hip waders, and I don’t know how to swim.
The drain for this pit is simply down the hill below Mead Chapel. Bet you’ve been sledding over the top of it. Broke the ice around this drain and the pit was cleared in about 15 minutes.
The last spot we’re still worrying about is on the north west alcove of Battell. This drain is frozen solid, barely flowing at all. We use bags of calcium chloride, and dump them on top of the drain. It acts like a non toxic drain cleaner, flowing down the drain and melting the ice. I’m hopeful this drain will be fixed by tomorrow. I’m not the most patient person you know.
The true heroes for the day, though, I don’t have any pictures of. There is an entire custodial team known as ‘floor crew’. I don’t even know how many of them there are, but the ones I know on it are all pretty cool. They ran around all day with wet vacs, carpet extractors, blowers, mops, and various other implements of mass destruction. Wherever water was pouring into basements or doorways, they were there, fixing the mess, saving the floors and buildings (and maybe your room!) from the water mess.
Thanks to an Environmental Grant several years ago, the Landscape department has been running a personal weather station down at the track off of Porter Field Road, with a second more recent station up at Breadloaf campus. We depend on these stations for primarily for snow removal and IPM strategies. The data are also streamed to the Weather Underground, a weather web site that accumulates and posts data for over 10,000 stations across the US.
Any compulsive weather addicts know how tricky it is to forecast weather for a region-most people say the forecasters are “wrong”. A better interpretation would probably be to say they aren’t accurate, and Vermont is a great example of why. The National Weather Service has various offices, and ours is in Burlington at the airport. They cover a large area, from Lake Placid to Montpelier, and from the Canadian Border to Killington. The only way to accurately forecast an area this large is to break it into regions. For example, our region is number 9, Western Addison, including the cities of Vergennes and Middlebury. And here lies the problem with forecasting, particularly in the winter. Middlebury campus is under the same forecast as Lake Champlain, and Vergennes shares the forecast with Brandon. It’s a huge geographical area, and one forecast for such a space is bound to lose accuracy across the region. Addison may get an 1″ of snow, low in the valley, while East Middlebury may be getting hammered with 6 times that, under the same forecast.
The Weather Underground has been taking the National Weather Service forecast, and re-packaging it on their website, along with access to some great radar maps, blogs, photos, etc. Recently, however, they’ve starting forecasting themselves, called Best Forecast, and what makes this different is the data, not only from all of the NWS weather stations, but all of the personal weather stations such as ours. Slate just wrote a great article explaining this. Suffice it to say that Best Forecast is now taking into account microclimates, so when pulling up a Middlebury forecast on the WU, we are getting a Middlebury campus forecast.
How accurate? We’ll find out tonight and tomorrow. The NWS is forecasting a dusting to 2″ of snow tonight, with an additional 3-5″ possible tomorrow before it changes to rain. Temperatures mid 20’s tonight, mid 30’s tomorrow. Best Forecast? Lows of 28 tonight, 50% chance of snow or rain, high of 45 tomorrow, snow than rain in the afternoon, snow accumulations of 1″ possible. I’m not placing bets on who is correct here, but the Best Forecast feels right to me. I’ll post an update when all is said and done.
UPDATE 4PM: The NWS issues forecasts at fairly regular times, 3 PM or so being fairly regular. Their update for the western addison zone has changed slightly, 2-4″ during the day tomorrow, changing to rain in the afternoon, back to snow Friday night with an additional 1-3″. Mid 30’s tomorrow, mid 20’s tomorrow night. Best Forecast has changed little-snow and rain tomorrow, accumulation 1″, chance of ice pellets, snow and rain friday night, only 60% chance, no accumulation mentioned.
UPDATE 12 NOON FRIDAY: The NWS has changed their forecast, as the storm seems to have slowed down from the west. No snow last night, and only light snow now at noon, not accumulating. So do we call this a win for Best Forecast? Both forecasts now are in line with each other for snowfall tonight, 4-6″, but Best Forecast is calling for temps today around 45, with the NWS saying mid 30’s, which it is now. I’d be surprised if temps rise today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Overall, we did fine. Here’s another couple of pictures of some damage, we’ll have it cleaned up in another day or so.
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…
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 lightning 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 lightning. Friends at work in the service building told me it was the most impressive lightning 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.
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.
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.
Luther Tenny (Facilities Snow Guru, and master of the Snow Plan) keeps much better track of snow storms than I. The weather station down at the track records liquid precipitation year round, thanks to a small heater melting snow in the rain guage. This has recorded .91″ so far in January, compared to 1.35″ to date last year. In December, 1.92″ of precip. fell, as compared to 1.5″ in 2009. The difference this winter seems to be frequency.
Luther reports 11 snow events so far this year, a snow event being one all of facilities needs to respond to. An average winter contains 18 snow events in total. He also states 19 of the last 20 days in January has seen some snow, and 24 of the 31 days in December.
I never got around to posting this, but here’s a great satellite picture of the nor’easter that hit us on January 12. I’ve lost the name of the site it came from, but I remember it’s from the National Weather Service. We’re in a break from snow now, as the bottom seems to be dropping out of the thermometer. Some of the coldest arctic air we’ve seen in 2-3 years is plunging south, so stay warm.
“No enemy but the weather, and the wind, the wind, the wind.” Michael Carey, from “The Thing about Farming”, The Noise the Earth Makes.
We had some wind yesterday. I’m thinking you noticed. Peak wind gust at our Middlebury College Weather Station was recorded at 51 mph, but what I found most impressive was the sustained wind speeds, wind speed averaged over the course of a minute. The highest recorded was 47 mph, but between about 2:30 and 4 the wind averaged between 30-45 mph. That’s impressive.
As you may know, wind is formed by air being pushed between two fronts. Yesterday a strong low pressure system pushed off high pressure off the coast, and the great difference in pressure and speed of the approaching front caused our extreme winds. Looking at the weather graphs for yesterday, you can see the barometric pressure was dropping as the cold front approached, and see the wind speed increasing. The front passes us at 4, and the wind speed dies down.
Our wild and crazy summer weather here at Middlebury continues, this time with a tree being struck by lightning. (Side note to the faithful readers out there. I feel for you-has this blog been getting depressing lately? With vandalism, more vandalism, storms, more storms, even still more storms, and disease, it seems like the Middlebury Landscape is getting tragic. Hold the faith! We’ve been planting as well. Posts coming soon on this year’s tree plantings, as well as a new look for Pearson Hall.)
The tree hit is a Ginkgo ( read here if you’ve forgotten about them) located in front of one of Middlebury’s “outside” houses, near Public Safety at 121 South Main Street. I don’t know the night it got hit, but it was brought to my attention by one of the diligent members of our crew. Looking at the tree originally, I first thought the tree had just cracked down near the base, possibly in some strong wind. The tree shows what arborists call co-dominant trunks, where two trunks of equal size meet and grow together. This is frequently a recipe for disaster, as a bad union often results, where included bark makes a weak joint, and the two trunks typically fall apart away from each other.
I called an Arborist friend to consult on the damage-this is one of our favorite trees in Facilities, many of us would mourn the loss. His skill, knowledge, and experience led him to look up the tree, rather than me just jumping to the first obvious conclusion, and that was how he discovered the damage around the cable up top, as well as noticing the toothpick sized wood pieces scattered around the yard, small pieces of trunk blown away from the tree from the force of the lightning. Being tree geeks, we climbed up to investigate.
Trees are frequent targets of lightning. Standing alone, frequently taller than many buildings around them, many trees get hit each year. Lightning is fascinating all on it’s own, with their impressive 100 million volts and temperatures greater than 50,000 degrees fahrenheit. 16 million lightning storms are estimated worldwide in a year, and measuring instruments record over 100 million strikes in the U.S. each year, killing on average 90 people. They even get their own phobia, Astraphobia, fear of lightning.
The conditions needed for lightning are still debatable, but should those conditions exist, negative ions accumulate at the base of the storm clouds, while positive ions pile up on the ground. “Stepped Ladders” descend from the clouds, while “streamers” arise from the earth, typically strongest from the tallest structures, such as buildings or trees. Should they build strong and fast enough, they meet to form a lightning bolt, and this electrical discharge super heats the air around it to 36,000 degrees fahrenheit, compressing the air creating supersonic shock wave we hear as thunder.
When lightning strikes a tree, the sap in the tree boils, turning to steam and blasting the bark away from the trunk. The electrical charge flows through the tree, exiting out the root system, which could be severely damaged in the process, sometimes with no visible sign above. In most cases, though, a strip of bark is torn from the tree, often in a long strip, but sometimes, like this ginkgo, only above and below. Trees with only one crack tend to close the wound and suffer, yet live, while trees with wounds on both sides of the trunk are frequently killed outright. Obviously, even a wounded tree can die from secondary reasons, such as insects and diseases, less able to fight them off.
Trees vary in their susceptibility to lightning strikes, possibly for biological reasons, or possibly simply because of their height. Elms, Oaks, Black Locust and Ash tend to be very susceptible, while Beech, Horsechestnut, and Birch tend to not be very susceptible. It may be the starch content of the tree making it more susceptible, while resinous trees are poorer conductors.
So there is hope for our Ginkgo. The wound at the bottom was traced, where loose bark is peeled away carefully from the trunk to the point where it attaches again. The thinking with bark tracing is that loose bark can trap moisture and disease, so by removing it the wound can dry better. Maybe it’s just something to do to make arborists feel not quite so helpless…
The cabling up in the crown of the tree is a little more problematic. Originally put in place to help stabilize the two co-dominant stems, the system now obviously cannot be trusted, as the wood surrounding the bolts holding the cable is now dead. We decided to replace the cable with two others, one above the old cable (a better location from an engineering perspective), but also one looser below, in case one of the stems fails completely at the original cable site, and breaks. The tree will then still be braced by the lower cable.
So now, we wait. The rest of this year, and into next spring, will be the crucial time, and when we shall see just how bad the strike was. Should it still appear somewhat healthy next spring, we will aerate the soil around the tree, add compost, fertilize, and mulch. Hard to imagine now, but, if we get a little drought this summer, we’ll even go down to water.