By Marlene Cimons
Neil Pederson's introduction to tree rings came from a "sweet and kindly" college instructor, who nevertheless was "one of the most boring professors I'd ever experienced," Pederson said. "I swore tree rings off then and there." But they kept coming back to haunt him.
As a future forest ecologist, he needed to learn more about the history of forests. So he read countless articles in graduate school extolling the importance of tree rings in unraveling a forest's past. Ultimately, "I fell in love with the beauty and wealth of information found in tree rings," he said. "Since then, tree rings have revealed to me the absolute resiliency of trees and forests. I'm hooked."
Today, he and his colleagues are using the data inherent in these ancient sources of nature to better understand the impact of climate change and carbon dynamics on forests, all the more valuable because data from long-lived trees can reach back decades, even centuries. This is far longer than modern satellite imagery, carbon dioxide measurements, and computer models, whose high-tech information gathering only stretches back about 30 years.
"What tree rings can do is enhance those records," Pederson said. "The satellite record … represents a small portion of the life of a tree, let alone the 'life' of a forest. Further, it only captures the weather 'norm' for a region and, as we are learning, climate varies over time. The weather norms or averages on your nightly weather reports are based on 30-year means. So, while satellite records are good at covering space, they might be limited in what they can tell us about forests due to shortness of these records."
Scientists sampling tulip-poplar at the Black Rock Forest in southern NY.
Neil Pederson / Harvard University
Pederson, now a senior ecologist with Harvard University's Harvard Forest, a 4,000-acre research site, along with Laia Andreu-Hayles, an associate research professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and Mathieu Levesque, research leader of the forest management group at ETH Zurich, analyzed tree rings to determine if the information they gleaned matched the accuracy of high-tech equipment. They wanted to know whether the rings could serve as a proxy for learning more about carbon storage and climate change in forests over the long-term, and found that they could.
Forests serve as important carbon "sinks," absorbing planet-heating carbon dioxide that has been released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels. But little is known about exactly how much carbon is stored in forests now, or in the past, and scientists are only in recent years learning about the past effects of climate change.
The scientists examined ring samples from two widespread species — tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and northern red oak (Quercus rubra) — growing in three climatically different regions of the eastern U.S., then analyzed the carbon and oxygen molecules — or stable isotopes — stored in them. They compared them to estimates obtained from satellites, and found strong agreement each year, and over time. No trees were destroyed to obtain the rings, by the way. Rather, scientists remove an increment core for each sample, each slightly narrower than a pencil.
"Our study is the first to compare stable isotopes from tree rings with the latest generations of productivity estimates from satellites," Levesque said. "We took advantage of the newly developed satellite data, and this is the main novelty of our study."
Their findings appear in the journal Nature Communications.
Flower of tulip-poplar, the tallest documented tree in the eastern U.S.
Neil Pederson / Harvard University
"Tulip poplar trees, one of my favorite trees, are highly sensitive to rainfall," Pederson said. "In fact, they are considered drought deciduous. (These are plants that drop their leaves during dry or drought periods.) During the drought in 1999 in the New York City area, some tulip poplars turned yellow in August and dropped many of their leaves due to the dryness of the year. In 2005, in Kentucky, after a drought in August, the three tulip poplars I walked by every day to work started to grow new leaves in September with the return of rain. I was stunned. These observations made me think this species might be a good candidate [to study.]"
Tulip poplar is highly sensitive to the amount of water in the soil, Pederson said. Also, he added, "it is an important species for timber and ecology over a large portion of the eastern U.S. … We [also] chose the stalwart, northern red oak, because of its different physiology, importance as a species, and its value as a study species in understanding forest productivity."
Levesque agreed. "Both species are great to study," he said. "Their wide distribution in eastern North America and their sensitivity to climate make them ideal species for our research." Moreover, "annual tree rings act like a thermometer and rain gauge and record climate in a very good way," he added.
The rings, in fact, revealed that access to water was the biggest influence in annual forest growth, regardless of climate. "These broadleaf trees need moisture to grow," Andreu-Hayles said. "Some people may think that in wet regions, moisture will be not important, but our study found that even in very humid time periods, as today, these trees are still sensitive to moisture variations. The stable isotopes measured in tree rings are highly sensitive to tracking moisture."
Levesque agreed. "Moisture availability is one of the most important factors for temperate forest growth in the northeastern, southeastern and central U.S.," he said. "That does not mean more moisture [means] more growth, because too wet conditions can also be a limiting factor. By 'regardless of climate,' we simply meant that moisture was the main limiting factor for tree growth and productivity irrespective of the local climate conditions found at the study sites."
Scan of the rings and wood structure of one of the tulip-poplar samples used in the study.
Mathieu Levesque / Harvard University
This is important because climate change has ushered in an era characterized by dramatic increases in extreme weather events, including prolonged drought, heavy precipitation and flooding and dangerous heat waves, thus more information about historic climate fluctuations could be useful in projecting future climate effects on forests. Experts regard the health of forests as a critical factor in mitigating carbon pollution.
Pederson noted that droughts in the 16th and 17th centuries were believed to be far worse than those in recent centuries, but it could be that climate change — by prompting more intense precipitation in some regions — has made the earlier droughts seem severe in comparison, he said. "The important thing to remember, however, is even though it is expected to rain more in the northeastern and eastern U.S. in the future, the warming associated with climate change will increase evaporation and the drought stress on plants," Pederson said. "It is not clear what will happen."
It's possible that as parts of the world become wetter, and warming reduces the overall amount of water in the region during the summer, it will worsen droughts, he said. Or it will become so wet that a rise in warming will balance the increase in precipitation, he said. Or — if rain decreases — the increase in warming will amplify the drought stress in trees, even if it doesn't seem as if the amount of available water has changed, he said.
The researchers hope to expand their research, examining more trees and additional species, and to look further back in time. "This kind of work will be extremely important considering that the longest remote sensing data started in 1982, and trees can live centuries-long," Andreu-Hayles said.
Pederson agreed. "These kinds of studies will provide considerable insight into how these trees will respond to climate and extreme climatic events … We can learn a lot from the memories of trees," he said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.