EAST LANSING, Mich. - A vicious ice storm that made Christmas week a nightmare from the Midwest to Maine shattered hundreds of trees at Michigan State University, where inch-thick layers of ice snapped thick limbs and trunks of stately towers that had stood for generations.
It was a distressing sight for a campus billed as an urban forest where scientists since the 1800s have kept records of every tree, where native oaks and maples coexist with exotic Siberian elms and Japanese pagodas. But amid the destruction, Frank Telewski saw opportunity and jumped into action with his tools of choice - not chain saw or ax, but tape measure and computer.
The biology professor and curator of Michigan State's arboretum is teaming with professionals in several states to study which kinds of trees best withstand ice and other severe weather, and ways of making them even less vulnerable.
The project could present communities with difficult questions of whether to give up on trees that have long been fixtures of their landscape, such as dazzling but weak ornamentals, in favor of less stalwarts that can bear up under strain like a well-conditioned athlete.
"If we can do something to reduce the potential damage, it's going to be a great service to the country - make us better prepared to survive these storms," Telewski said.
"Strike teams" of U.S. Forest Service and state experts have been pushing the idea with officials in storm-damaged communities.
"It really doesn't sink in until a community has a storm and tries to recover," said John Parry, a Forest Service urban forester.
Favored are the lacebark elms, bald cypress and various oaks because the city considers them resistant to drought as well as ice.
Some question whether ice resistance should be such a priority.
In Springfield, Mass., city forester Ed Casey says factors like resistance to disease and pests are uppermost in his mind.
With ice storms, "You can have perfectly healthy trees that are structurally sound, have good strength capacity, and they can still be damaged," Casey said.
Telewski, the Michigan State professor, insists that species selection can make a difference. His team's research also suggests that pruning trees can provide the same benefits as exercise for humans, he said.