Hurricane Sandy Chopped Wood. Will Forests Recover?


Central Park Conservancy

Thousands of trees never stood a chance against hurricane Sandy’s merciless winds that blasted the Northeast last week. And when those trees faltered, they fell with crushing force. Uprooted, splintered, and draped over houses and utility wires, downed trees continue to be a reminder of the unprecedented super storm that pounded the region. In Central Park alone, an estimated 650 trees toppled, including a 160-year-old pin oak.


Many other majestic maples, oaks, and pines continue to join the woodpile. Some stood when Thomas Jefferson was president. Others when Orville and Wilbur Wright took their first flight. Many were indelible family centerpieces that provided shade for picnics and a sturdy place to hang a child’s swing.


On the Sunday after Sandy’s winds whipped through Connecticut I joined Ted Gilman, a naturalist and environmental educator at Audubon Greenwich, for a walk on the center’s 285 acres. Our plan was to survey some of the dead trees that fell by the dozens. Zipping up his jacket and tugging on a navy-blue knit cap, Gilman set off into the forest where most of the tree limbs overhead were now bare. Leaves that had only a week earlier lit up the woods in fiery shades of crimson and amber now crunched underfoot.


Gilman soon reached the upended trunk of an “old friend,” a giant red oak by which he had stopped hundreds of times to hold a seed between his fingers as he explained to a child how it would germinate on the forest floor. Hooking the end of his oversized tape measure into the tree’s gnarly bark, he backed up the slope, navigating broken branches and uneven ground, until he could report the tree’s height—105 feet. Then the diameter: 4 feet. “Oh man,” he said, nearly in a whisper. “This tree was a living landmark, a reminder of just how big the trees could be and how conceivably big they were in the past.”


News of the oak’s demise made Gilman’s heart sink, but now several days after Sandy’s visit (three days before a fierce nor’easter would roll into town) he was considering the situation from a more scientific perspective. Sandy was not the first hurricane to hit a Connecticut forest, he said, handing over the book “A Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide,” by Neil Jorgensen, published in 1978. Jorgensen wrote of a 1938 hurricane that walloped southern Connecticut as its eye moved up the Connecticut Valley before veering northwest across Vermont.


The economic impact of that hurricane was beyond belief. Hundreds of thousands of mature white pines—at that time, the mainstay of New England’s timber industry—fell like an army of tin soldiers.


But Jorgensen had good news, too. The recovery of such hurricane-damaged forests can happen more quickly than if the woodland had suffered a major fire, he wrote. Large trees bear the brunt of the wind, allowing smaller trees in the understory to survive. The loss of older trees creates gaps in the canopy, encouraging the growth of young saplings previously suppressed by shade. Mounds of ground unearthed by uprooted trees produce so-called pillows where a shallow-rooted birch tree’s seed might blow in and take-hold.  


Gilman had spent the morning leafing through Jorgensen’s writings, and now he was reflecting on the bigger picture. “The whole forest did not get knocked down,” he told me. “We lost some very special old trees, but the forest is intact.”


As he ambled along twisting trails, pausing periodically to clear a branch, Gilman talked about how the changes to the woodland—and particularly the availability of acorns—due to the storm may, or may not, affect birds and other wildlife next fall and winter. Would acorn-dependent birds like tufted titmice and blue jays need to switch to another food source? Possibly, but it would be hard to say right now; by then, many other ecological factors would be in play.


Standing near a giant tulip poplar that smashed a nearby boardwalk when it succumbed to Sandy’s wind, Gilman pointed toward the canopy. “There’s another tulip tree coming; it’s not small by any means.” Eyeing the young tree—already 30 or 40 feet tall—he smiled a little. “I don’t think our titmice will starve.” 


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