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Climatologists Studying Tree Rings in the Ozarks

In a part of the United States that hasn't experienced a drastic change in temperatures as much as other regions, a study of the trees in the Ozarks is underway. (Columbia University Earth Institute)
In a part of the United States that hasn't experienced a drastic change in temperatures as much as other regions, a study of the trees in the Ozarks is underway. (Columbia University Earth Institute)
March 22, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - A crew of scientists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has been making its way through the Ozark Mountains, dodging snakes and poison ivy to study tree rings to see how they're reacting to climate change.

In much of North America, research has shown climate warming is happening so quickly that trees can't adapt, but that isn't the case in the South Central U.S., where temperatures haven't changed much yet.

Research professor and bioclimatologist Park Williams says some tree species will be more vulnerable than others.

"And if we can identify some species that do very well versus other species that do poorly in the warmth, then maybe we can understand how these tree species may respond in a future world where warming takes place," says Williams.

The team samples trees' yearly growth rings by hand-screwing a long, hollow drill bit into the trunk.

They then correlate the rings to the annual temperature and rainfall amounts in that area. The project is in the early stages, and Williams says they're trying to secure funding to take it further.

He says it's important to know how trees are doing because when they die, they release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and that can warm the planet even further. Williams calls the Ozarks "the perfect classroom."

"Anybody who's been on a walk in the Ozark Mountains or Smoky Mountains, there's well over 10 dominant tree species, and during summertime, every square inch of possible space is taken up by leaves," he says. "Every bit of sunlight is being utilized."

In the next phase of the study, Williams and his colleagues plan to sample hundreds of trees from Central Kentucky to where the Great Plains begin.

Trees have started showing signs of the warming climate across the U.S. Ponderosa pines in the Southwest and aspens in Colorado are being wiped out.

In California, drought and wildfire could kill some 120 million trees. Williams says that's why this study is crucial.

"If you had one species that started doing really poorly, then very quickly you'd have another species benefit," he says. "And we're really interested in trying to learn who would be the 'winners' and who would be the 'losers' if we had a change in climate? Not just temperature, but if it got wetter because of increased rainfall, who would win and who would die?"

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MO