A journal of science, thought, and action.

Published on Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reading Trees

Plants speak to us if we're paying close attention. They wilt if not watered; turn yellow if not fed; and burn if in to much sun. Plants can be books if you learn how to read them, and trees are some of the best record keepers. New investigations by researchers at the University of Washington's  Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and the Ocean  show they can now inform us about climate change as well.

According to a report in  Geophysical Research/Bio-geosciences , Jim Johnstone of the Institute has developed a way to use redwoods as a window into past climate conditions. Using oxygen isotopes in the tree's wood to detect fog and rainfall in previous seasons, the new method has proved correct in a 50 year time-line test. The researcher comment in a UW announcement : “This is really the first time that climate reconstruction has ever been done with redwoods.”

Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens)                 Redwoods Range (credit: Save the Redwoods)
(credit: Wiki-commons)                                

The research used cores from California coastal redwoods tracing climate over the test period. Weather records gathered over from the same time showed that Johnstone's measure was accurate, suggesting it could be used to track conditions through the thousand or more years of a redwoods’ lifetime.

The lead researcher and his collaborators used a difficult approach more similar to reading ice cores and bores from trees to measure oxygen isotope ratios in the wood.
Rain and fog carry different ratios of the molecules so fog---the prime natural characteristic of redwood environments---absorbed by the wood retained a record of past chemistry of the thick moisture-laden atmosphere.

Related research has showed that the amount of West Coast fog is tied to ocean surface temperatures, so redwoods may provide information about long-term patterns of ocean change. Johnstone said: “It is possible that redwoods could give us a direct indication of how that’s worked over longer periods."

A recent TED presentation details more about these remarkable trees and the people who study them:

While the researchers have learned to read these tall "books" well the fate of the fogs that bath them is being affected by a changing climate and a new history is being written in their wood.


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