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Heroes

We're plunging this forest into a deep freeze to get a look into the future.

A bit chilly? At least you're not a tree.

Well, at least you're not one of these trees at the Hubbard Brooke Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. These trees are pretty cold.

That's because, since 2015, scientists have been putting these particular trees on ice.

All right, everyone, chill! Image from National Science Foundation/YouTube.


Charles Driscoll from Syracuse University and his colleagues are interested in how severe ice storms affect forests. There haven't actually been a lot of studies about this. But the scientists had a problem: Ice storms aren't exactly the most predictable or consistent things in nature. You can't schedule it ahead of time, after all.

So rather than wait for nature to provide a convenient ice storm, they decided to create their own.

Let's kick some ice! Image from National Science Foundation/YouTube.

Turns out there isn't an off-the-shelf forest-freezer though, so the scientists had to invent one. It looks a bit like a cross between a snowmobile and a firetruck. It uses hoses and pumps to suck up water from a nearby brook and blasts it 100 feet into the air, where the water turns into a fine freezing mist.

Of course, it only works if the air temperature is already below freezing, but overall, the effect is like putting the forest in a big wet freezer says Driscoll. "Experimentally, it worked out quite well."

The scientists have 10 roughly basketball-court-sized forest plots. Some are left alone. Others get a quarter, half, or three-quarters of an inch of ice, which allows the scientists to test different sizes of storm. For reference, half-an-inch of ice would be a pretty big storm. Three-quarters would be an epic one.

The team did a first round of freezing in early 2016. If all goes as expected, they'll do another round in January or February of 2017 and one in 2018.

"Thats the plan, assuming Mother Nature cooperates," says Driscoll.

This could help Driscoll and his team predict what the future holds for forests like this one.

What killed the dinosaurs? The ice age! Image from National Science Foundation/YouTube.

The scientists hope to get a holistic view of how a forest responds to big ice storms. They're looking at a ton of variables — how many branches are snapped off by the ice, for instance, and does all that dead wood makes wildfires more likely during other parts of the year? Are the trees growing differently? What about the birds? What about the insects? The scientists are studying all of that, both during the winter as well as the following seasons too.

"We make those measurements throughout the year," says Driscoll.

They're going to watch for both short- and long-term effects and use that information to build scientific models that can help predict how forests will respond to future storms.

My editor says I have to apologize for the Mr. Freeze puns. Image from National Science Foundation/YouTube.

This information might be good to know, since big ice storms might actually become more common in the future. We know climate change is already affecting weather patterns, and it may even be causing more of those polar vortexes that keep hitting Europe and the Northeast U.S.

It's pretty neat to see such an ambitious experiment.

"I think it's a good example of exciting experimental science," says Driscoll. They've got a lot of work ahead of them, but the results will hopefully be illuminating. "We're looking forward to seeing how the forest responds."

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They first explained that way back when movies were first moving from silent film to spoken dialogue, actors had to enunciate and project loudly while speaking directly into a large microphone. If they spoke and moved like actors do today, it would sound almost as if someone were giving a drive-by soliloquy while circling the block. You'd only hear every other sentence or two.

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