Nature Notes: White Pines Gone Brown

How the white pines fared in Sandy

   People have been asking me about the completely browned-off white pines that resulted from the passing of superstorm Sandy at the end of last October.
    On Sunday I took the northern route, 25A, to my house on the South Fork. It was slow going, but I wanted to see how the white pines there fared in Sandy. Although there were lots deciduous trees knocked over along the way, I couldn’t find a single browned-off white pine. It wasn’t until I reached the Manorville pine barrens on Jericho Turnpike that I began to notice browned-off white pines here and there, almost all situated in people’s yards and planted as shade trees, no doubt.
    Later in the trip, it seemed that every white pine south of the Long Island Expressway, whether in a woods or someone’s lawn, had turned a tawny brown. Not one was spared.
    It must have had something to do with Sandy’s fierce winds, but why were the 10 or so in my yard on Noyac Road mostly spared? Less than 10 percent of their needles had turned tan. Yet they were subject to winds that were strong enough to snap three utility poles a few feet above their base in the same neighborhood and drop a giant oak limb on my roof, causing considerable damage. These winds came in from the north, sweeping in from over Noyac Bay. One would think they would have been as salty as the ones from the south, which blew in over the ocean.
    Salt probably had something to do with it, but desiccation was probably just as much to blame. The few white pines growing on the edge of the Sunrise Highway were pretty much all brown a week after the storm, while the pitch pines next to them were as green as ever. White pine needles, five to a fascicle, are slender and flexible when compared to the pitch pine ones, three to a fascicle, which are stiff and thick, and hardly bend in the wind.    Everywhere I looked, as far away as Islip, the pitch pines appeared unaffected.
    On the other hand, while so many large oaks and other hardwoods were bowled over, mostly snapped off a few feet above the ground by Sandy, not a white pine could I find that was downed. Pine is a soft wood and gives when subject to gale force winds. Oaks are hardwoods and although they are sturdy, they can be snapped in an instant, just as the three telephone poles mentioned above were. (The forests are full of downed trees, not just from Sandy, but from a spate of previous storms, of which we have had so many in the new millennium.) The ones downed by Sandy still had most of their fall leaves attached. The direction in which they fell indicated the direction of the winds that downed them.
    White pines have shallow root systems, but the roots fan out, forming an impressive disc that is as wide as the canopy above. They are hard to tip over, especially when the ground has not been saturated by the rain. Oaks have deep roots, equally anchoring the trunks above, and only go over all at once when the ground is wet. If the roots don’t give, the trunk does.
    Some of the magnificent white pines that comprise the bulk of East Hampton Town’s Northwest forest were touched by the storm — the ones on the edges of the stands — but the ones deep in were not. The white pine forest is the only one of any size on the whole of Long Island and owes it existence to the high water table in the Northwest area and the fact that groundwater averages about 55 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. White pines are common upstate and in New England all the way to Canada. They like it cool. Here they never stop photosynthesizing as long as their roots are in water that is warmer than the atmosphere, while in the summer they are kept cool by sucking up the relatively cold groundwater.
    Pitch pines do well in sandy soils subject to frequent droughty conditions. They send their roots down a long way to get what water they can filch from that seeping down after rains. They also sequester rainwater behind the brown plates that make up their rough-skinned trunks. Check them after a rain and you will see that their trunks have changed from brown to almost black because of their wetness.
    I have yet to answer the question concerning the fate of the browned-off white pines. My gut feeling is that the large majority of them will recover, but if the spring is dry and they are attacked by pine borers, they might not. Hundred-year-old pitch pines are like 100-year-old humans — rare. They are relatively short-lived trees compared to white pines, which can live more than 250 years.
    Even so, the pitch pine stands will outlive the white pine ones here on Long Island for two main reasons. They tolerate warmed-up climates and they are a fire-climax species, that is, pitch pine stands are used to being burned over regularly. Adults will be killed but the waxy glue holding the pine nuts close inside the mature cones will melt in the heat and the seed will drop into the burned-over duff and start a whole new stand. Global warming will gradually do in the white pines here, just as it did in the hemlocks, spruces, and other cold climate conifers that used to call Long Island their home a few hundred years ago.