What are "Widowmakers?"
A “Widowmaker” is anything that could potentially fall on you, typically a tree or large branches thereof, usually in or around camp, though you can encounter them just about anywhere.
It is standard practice to look up and around a prospective camping spot, before you even put your pack down, to make sure that there are no signs of dead trees, weak or broken overhanging limbs, or visibly raised root bowls at the base of neighbouring trees.
This should be an automatic action whenever you’re out camping in or around trees, though if I had a penny for every time I’ve had to point out to people when they’ve failed to look, or – worse – actually set up camp in the shadow of one or more Widowmakers, I’d be quite wealthy by now.
Not JUST when you're camping!
Widowmakers aren’t only a problem for people out camping in the woods. They can occur just about anywhere you find trees, such as while driving down a road.
Indeed, the writing of this very article has been prompted by a large branch falling on my own car today (August 4th, 2017) while driving down a road through the Thetford Forest area.
Fortunately, the damage is strictly cosmetic.
Sadly, I didn’t get any photos of the fallen limb on my car. Myself, and a man from the RAC whom just happened to be in the vehicle behind me, made swift work of cutting up the limb (using my Bacho Bow Saw) and clearing the road so that traffic could pass.
My car – mercifully – sustained only some moderate scratches to the front-passenger side.
The point is that Widowmakers can occur just about anywhere, and – despite what most people mistakenly believe – not just in the winter, or during bad weather.
In fact, trees are as likely to drop limbs during the summer as they are during the winter, in a phenomenon known as the “Summer Branch Drop.”
What IS the "Summer Branch Drop?"
Perhaps it’s something of a “Cosmic Coincidence,” but once my business for the day was complete (having one of my DSLR cameras repaired by a specialist) I decided to venture to the country park in my home town.
I was only a 15 minute drive away, and it’s such a lovely place to go.
Anyway, once I arrived, I noticed they had placed a cordon around a locally-famous Beech tree, and erected a sign explaining why.
The park’s management are afraid that another profoundly massive limb is likely to fall with absolutely no warning what-so-ever.
They’re worried for good reason, too, as a branch weighing in excess 100 tonnes fell last year, obliterating a fence close-by.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and the only real consequence – beyond removing the profoundly-massive fallen limb – was the necessity to replace the fence.
The signage put in place by the park’s management is quite impressive, in that it explains – in detail – what the “Summer Branch Drop” phenomenon is, and why it occurs.
Trees absorb water, through the roots of course, but also through the bark on their limbs.
Excess water is displaced into the air – much like how humans sweat – through a process called “evapotranspiration.”
“Summer Branch Drop” occurs when the humidity of the air remains excessively high, after a period of extremely heavy rainfall.
Just as the human body struggles to cool itself down on hot, humid days – because the air contains too much moisture to accept the additional moisture of your sweat – evapotranspiration cannot occur when the humidity is too high.
This means that the limbs of the tree are holding on to excessive volumes of water, adding extreme mass to limbs that – in many cases – were already close to the tensile limits of the tree.
The end result is pretty obvious: the limb snaps, and comes crashing down to the ground, typically with a devastating amount of force.
In extreme cases, the entire tree can become uprooted, and come crashing down to the ground… presenting an even greater risk.
"Bouncing is what Beech trees do best!"
Certain species of tree, such as Beech, have a natural amount of “springiness” (or “high restitution,” if you want to be scientific) and this presents a potentially-greater threat than the initial act of a tree – or its limbs – falling.
Trees with high restitution (such as Beech trees) can actually bounce back into their root bowls. In the case of detached limbs, they can shoot up into the air at a moment’s notice, causing unimaginable damage to anything that gets in their way.
This occurs when the humidity in the air starts to drop, allowing evapotranspiration to resume on the fallen tree/limb.
Once the tree/limb reduces sufficiently in mass, any levering force applied thereto will overcome the mass that had caused it to fall in the first place, causing the tree/limb to spring back up.
Even worse, you can trigger this spring yourself by thoughtlessly removing parts of a fallen tree/limb – since this will reduce the mass that caused it to fall in the first place, and even more suddenly than evapotranspiration would.
Oh, and don’t forget that the collapse of one tree, or even one limb from a tree, can leave large branches hanging precariously from neighbouring trees.
Avoid camping under or near trees with large limbs!
The best thing to do to avoid becoming “the pink mist” is to simply avoid setting up camp beneath or close to trees with large overhanging limbs; even if those limbs looks healthy and strong.
Remember that summer is the most likely time of year for this phenomenon to occur in the absence of strong winds, heavy snow, or ice formation.
If you have to remove a fallen limb for the sake of public access – such as I had to do when the branch landed on my car – you need to exercise extreme caution, because you could release an unimaginable amount of tension, and it genuinely could kill you (or someone close-by)
Hopefully this impromptu article will help to raise awareness of this phenomenon, and the hazard presented by WIdowmakers in general.