AMBLER, PA - In the aftermath of destruction, reality can set in.
“We lost so much,” said Kathleen Salisbury, director of the Ambler Arboretum.
Sometimes, though, there’s a chance to gain much more.
At one time, near the Ambler campus of Temple University, an old-growth forest stood tall: its centuries-old trees reached hundreds of feet into the sky.
The arboretum was an outdoor lab and the pride and joy of the Temple Ambler Field Station.
“This patch right here has been a focus of our research and our education,” said Amy Freestone, the field station’s director.
Last September, though, the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept across the Northeast, which caused devastating flooding and spawned multiple tornadoes in areas that don’t normally see any.
One of those tornadoes cut a seven-mile path right through the forest.
“Somebody asked, you know, ‘How are you going to be an arboretum without any trees?’” Salisbury said.
It was a good question -- one that eventually led to an unusual pivot.
“We had designated it as an ecological observatory prior to that,” Freestone said, “and our feeling was, ‘Well, this doesn't change that.’”
So, the destroyed forest became part of a new class and a new research endeavor called “Disturbance Ecology.”
“Whether it be wildfires, or invasions by insects, or tornadoes or hurricanes, or flooding - these are disturbances,” Freestone said, “and so, fundamentally, they alter an ecosystem.”
Students and researchers there are now focusing on how a forest recovers from destructive events.
“While this area is untouched after the storm, an adjacent area was cleared,” Freestone said. “If left untouched, all of the plots will ultimately revert to forest. So, we're going to watch how that trajectory plays out under different scenarios.”
That’s important because it can help land managers and communities figure out the best course of action to restore damaged forests, which play an important role.
“Forests are immensely important for society,” Freestone said. “We get a lot from natural systems and forests, in particular. So, we get food, water, energy, medicine.”
Students like Timothy Breiner are also seeing another side to the recovery, still unfolding for nearby homeowners, who are recovering from the storm’s destruction.
“I definitely was surprised by the whole effects of the aftermath of the tornado,” Breiner said. “A lot of people were able to share their own personal stories who lived around here and that was really interesting to see kind of how it affected them.”
Those neighbors were also seeking advice.
“The next day, people who had no roofs or lost their cars or lost their offices or all of the above, were calling to find out what they could do to replant their trees,” Salisbury said. “We've become more ingrained in the community. We've become a part of it. And we have all these lessons that we can teach.”
The lessons are ones they hope can be applied to forests everywhere, which face a long road to recovery.