What to do with ice-covered trees

Move damaged trees when it’s safe and necessary; otherwise best bet is to let nature take its course.

The Dec. 21-22, 2013 ice storm brought unprecedented levels of ice damage throughout the Midwest and beyond. As hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents look out at the ice-ravaged landscapes one of the most common questions is “What do I do with these ice-covered trees?”

A heavy layer of ice coats this small branch.
A heavy layer of ice coats this small branch. Photo credit: Bert Cregg

The answer depends on several factors.

 First, is the tree or limb touching or near a power line? If so, stay at least 25 feet away and contact your local utility. Because of the volume of calls you may have to go through an automated system but make sure to stay with the process so the utility is aware of the situation and can get it in the queue.

 Second, does the tree have to be moved? If the tree or limb is blocking a road or driveway, then it may be necessary to move the downed tree or limb. In the current storm we are seeing trees that may be covered with an inch of ice or more. This makes a potentially dangerous situation even more so. Do not attempt to work around limbs that have broken off and hung up in a tree crown or limbs that are partially broken off. These can break off without warning with devastating force. Contact a professional tree care provider to deal with overhead limbs down on trees.

In most cases the safest course of action at this point is to let nature take its course. The heavy ice accumulation has been hardest on broad-leaved, deciduous trees, particularly those that had decay or other defect. For those trees the damage is done. These trees can be cleaned up later when then ice is gone and it is safer to work around the trees.

Damaged hickory tree
Damaged hickory tree. Photo credit: Bert Cregg, MSU

Many people are concerned about trees, particularly birches, which were bent over by the weight of the ice accumulation. Often these trees will be able to recover once the ice melts. Many homeowners are tempted to try to shake the tree or break the ice off. In the current storm, the ice coating is very thick and difficult to remove. Attempting to remove it may cause more damage and breakage than simply leaving the tree alone. Unless there is a compelling reason otherwise, the safest course is to let the tree recover on its own.

Bent over birch tree.
Bent over birch tree. Photo credit: Bert Cregg, MSU

See the related Michigan State University Extension articles for more information

Dr. Cregg’s work is funded in part by MSU‘s AgBioResearch.