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Why some South Jersey trees turned autumn brown in the wake of Isaias
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Why some South Jersey trees turned autumn brown in the wake of Isaias

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During and after Tropical Storm Isaias, local residents were stunned by the autumnal look of their trees in the middle of summer.

“All of my leaves, hanging plants and landscaping looked beautiful the day before the storm,” said Jamie Girgenti, of the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township. “The east-facing side of everything turned brown before the storm was even over. All the trees on Route 72 are the same. We have had storms with much more rain and higher winds that did not cause this to happen.”

Hours of pounding onshore winds, sending large amounts of salt air onto land, caused “salt burn,” which shut down the natural systems that give leaves their green color and turned them brown.

“I did notice that there was an exceptional amount of salt residue on most surfaces,” Girgenti said.

From 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 4 — the day the center of Isaias tracked through eastern Pennsylvania — winds from the southeast or south, both onshore, blew at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.

Sustained winds as high as 36 mph blew at the airport, with onshore wind gusts over 70 mph in Little Egg Harbor Township (70), Ocean City (72) and Cape May (75).

“You get a heck of a lot of (salt) spray. ... The upper layer of a leaf has quite a bit of wax to hold water within the leaf,” said Jason Grabosky, professor of urban forestry at Rutgers University.

With this type of setup, Grabosky said, the waxy layer within the leaf erodes.

In many tropical systems, especially in Florida and the Gulf Coast, the large amount of rain that accompanies it usually dilutes the salt enough to keep plants healthy after the storm.

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However, Isaias was a windstorm, not a rainmaker. That means the salt air can also get into the soil and the root system, leaving plants distressed and looking for water. When this happens, they start to turn brown.

According to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, a volunteer weather-data collection system, all shore towns reported under an inch of rainfall, include 0.48 inches in Atlantic City and 0.35 inches in Sea Isle City.

Even on the mainland, totals were low until you reached western portions of Atlantic and Cumberland counties. Estell Manor reported 0.62 inches of rain, and Somers Point reported 0.42 inches.

Living near Smitty’s Clam Bar in Somers Point, Heather Hires noted that the trees near the business, which are exposed to the open bay, had more brown leaves than other places around her neighborhood.

“Wow, I went outside and was like, ‘Man, it’s not fall yet,’” Hires said. “I was wondering why it was already seeming like it was fall. … They were just dropping.”

Grabosky said it’s not unusual for the onshore-facing side of the tree to be brown, while the other side remains green and whole.

“If it’s one side and not the other side (of the tree), its an abiotic (mechanical) issue. That could mean just getting pummeled by the winds on the leading edge or, salt spray. The leading edge get(s) salted, especially if you have tender bean foliage that drops every fall,” Grabosky said.

Local residents said it wasn’t just trees that were suffering.

Carol Herron, of Stone Harbor, noticed brown leaves on crepe myrtle, butterfly bushes, roses and other plants.

This isn’t the first time South Jersey has seen salt burn from a tropical storm in recent memory.

“It’s kind of like Sandy; we saw this on pines. In Sandy, we got hit and didn’t get doused with a lot of rain and there’s a lot of white pine,” Grabosky said, noting the salt air removed the waxy buildup that holds in critical moisture.

With a very active remainder of the Atlantic hurricane season expected, it may not be the last, either.

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