December 20, 2013

PETERS: Tree rings speak to ancient climate change


---- — On a lark, when I was a college student I took a class in field biology. It sounded romantic and I was young, so even though it didn’t really make any sense for a geology student to take the senior level class in another discipline, I was there bright and early on the first day of the semester.

One week everyone in the course walked to a grove of old hardwood trees near the edge of campus. We had “boring tools” — drills with long, hollow bits — with us. The idea was to sink the bit into the trunk of the tree. When the bit reached the middle of the tree, we used a narrow spatula to extract a thin “dowel” of wood from within the hollow bit.

These elegant little samples give you access to the life history of the tree as recorded in its growth rings. As every school child knows, counting the rings tells you how old the tree is.

But some samples of trees can tell you much more than age. That’s because some trees live in difficult environments. They grow best only when there is a good year in terms of precipitation, temperature, and the like, so they have growth rings that are quite uneven. Some rings are thick, representing good years for growth, while others are quite thin from when times were tough for the tree. This means that tree rings can tell us about variations in past weather and climate.

In the southwest U.S., a lot of work has been done with tree rings. Indeed, the whole science of what’s called dendrochronology was worked out in that region in the early and mid 20th century. But since then, scientists around the world have also used basic ideas about tree rings to do several different things.

Earlier this year, National Geographic Daily News ran a story about dendrochronologists in New Zealand. In the 1980s a researcher named John Ogden and his students started what has become a truly significant tree ring record. By matching the thin-thick-thin patterns of wood samples taken from kauri trees of varying ages, they started to establish a chronology for the local area. More recently, dendrochronologist Gretel Boswijk has been updating and extending that record. The kauri trees of New Zealand include some quite old individuals. Using living trees and wood from buildings, Boswijk was able to record the patterns in the wood going back to the 1200s.

Using wood found in old — even ancient — buildings is a clever approach on the part of the tree-ring crowd. Here in the U.S., dendrochronologists were able to date the age of the Pueblo Bonito civilization in New Mexico. They did this by matching the old parts of living trees with the younger parts of the ancient samples in ruins, thus extending the record back in time.

Happily, archaeological samples are not the only ancient wood available. In parts of New Zealand there are swamps that preserve kauri trees that have fallen into the muck and been sealed off from air. Using those samples, Boswijk and people working with her were able to establish a record going back nearly 4,500 years. That’s a great record of local conditions over a long period of time, going back pretty far into what geologists call the Holocene Epoch.

Anthony Fowler, who works with Boswijk at New Zealand’s Tree-Ring Laboratory, specializes in looking at climate change, with part of his interest being how climate change has been recorded in tree samples. Specifically, some of the information he can deduce from the patterns of tree-ring widths in New Zealand relate to El Niños -- the recurring weather patterns related to changing ocean temperatures in the Pacific. Looking at the evidence of the wood samples, Fowler has determined that El Niños in the southern hemisphere have been getting more intense in the last 500 years. We don’t yet know why that might be the case, but that’s the evidence given to us by the trees.

It’s impressive what specialists can deduce from simple samples of wood, both living and ancient. It will be interesting to see what other natural secrets can be decoded with the help of tree rings.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is the author of “Planet Rock Doc.” This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at and on Twitter @RockDocWSU.