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January 1998: An ice storm like no other hit southern Quebec, as well as parts of Ontario, the Maritimes and eastern United States. From January 5 to 9, three major episodes of freezing rain turned the bucolic winter landscape into a disaster scene. Who can forget the striking images of trees frozen solid in elaborate ice sculptures, collapsed electricity pylons, paralyzed roads and military assistance? On top of this, nearly half of Quebec found itself plunged into darkness when the power grid, put to the test by all the ice, gave in.  The province was in the grips of an incredible ice storm. Mount Royal and its thousands of trees were not spared.

Mountain of Ice

Mother Nature unleashed her fury on the mountain. Mount Royal received up to 8 to 10 cm of ice, the equivalent of the amount of freezing rain that occurred on average in 30 episodes over two years. Buckling under the thick layer of ice, 80% of the trees in Mount Royal Park, about 86,000 trees, were damaged.

Ice accumulation affects various tree species differently depending on their nature and characteristics. Trees with broad crowns, such as ash trees and silver maples, were far more affected by the ice. Other species, such as large-bodied oaks and Kentucky coffeetrees, were more resilient because of their narrower crowns and flexible branches (reference Agence Science Presse).

After the storm, countless branches littered the ground or threatened to give way under the weight of the ice; others hung dangerously above open spaces, rendering walking impossible. Desperate times called for desperate measures and on January 7, the park was declared dangerous and closed for over a month.

Clean-Up after the Storm

As a result of all the debris, Mount Royal Park looked far more like a logging camp than a city park. Les amis de la montagne and the City of Montréal sought the advice of forestry experts to determine the best course of action. For safety reasons, it was decided to prune and fell all damaged trees and to clear the undergrowth.

A great clean-up operation was organized. The City of Montréal hired some 50 lumberjacks to cut down 5,200 condemned trees and to collect the mountains of tree residues. The task at hand was colossal, and an urgent request was issued for a skilled workforce. Les amis de la montagne also called upon Montréal businesses and the general public to contribute financially to this vast operation and to obtain the help of hundreds of volunteers to collect the thousands of branches.

Filled with damaged trees and broken branches, the woodlands and cross-country ski trails were closed all winter for security reasons. In May, a patrol was set up by Les amis de la montagne to ensure the safety of visitors and the protection of the park. Its main task was to prevent pedestrians and cyclists from walking on dangerous paths and to reduce the risk of fire due to the abundance of dead branches on the ground.

Mount Royal Today

In a way, Mount Royal experienced its own ice age 20 years ago, and traces of the ice storm are still visible in its woodlands.

For example, new branches that replace those that were cut or that fell due to the weight of ice are more fragile and susceptible to disease and fungal development. Often, they can grow vertically on trees that were bent, which affects their longevity. Also, areas heavily impacted by the ice storm are more prone to the growth of invasive plants, such as Norway maple, buckthorn and wild chervil, which benefit from the light provided by the thinning of the forest canopy (reference Agence Science Presse).

Since the ice storm, the forest gets a helping hand from Les amis de la montagne and its thousands of volunteers who plant trees and shrubs and remove invasive plants every year.

The Emerald Ash Borer: Another Storm on the Horizon?

Just like the ice storm, the emerald ash borer jeopardizes Mount Royal’s arboreal heritage. Indeed, the fight against this insect of Asian origin is expected to be long and hard. In 2017, the City of Montréal announced the felling of nearly 4,000 dying ash trees and the future planting of 40,000 trees to minimize the damage of the borer in the park. It is hoped these interventions will contribute to the integrity of the mountain's natural environment.

Mother Nature doubtlessly has many other surprises up her sleeve as shown by the recent bone-chilling cold that gripped Canada. However, the efforts made by the community during the ice storm testify to the love that citizens have for the mountain in the middle of their city.
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Twenty years after the ice storm, there’s no doubt that very few of us are cold as ice when it comes to protecting Mount Royal.
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