November 13, 2002

Tree Rings Offer Environmental Insight

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Dr. Paolo Cherubini, of the Swiss Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, gave a lecture yesterday in Goldwin Smith Hall entitled “Understanding Mediterranean Tree Rings: the Contribution of Ecology, Physiology and Wood Anatomy to Den-droecology.”

The lecture, sponsored by the Malcom and Carolyn Wiener Laboratory for Aegean and Near Eastern Dendrochronology, the Cornell Biogeochemistry and Biocomplexity Initiative and the Finger Lakes Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America, covered a wide variety of ways to apply the study of tree rings.

“[Cherubini] has a message that I think would be of interest to a variety of people,” said Prof. Peter Kuniholm, history of art and archaeology, one of the organizers of the lecture.

“We had people here from half a dozen departments across campus, which is what this is all about. Instead of all biologists or all archeologists, it was a mix, and that’s what a university is really supposed to be about.”

Cherubini claimed that the failure to understand the cause of forest decline during the 1980’s caused the inception of the Long Term Forest Ecosystem Research Program.

“We established all over Europe, founded by the United Nations and European community, the so called ICP Forests Program, or Long Term Forest Ecosystem Research,” he said. “At each plot we carry out some monitoring and also some research.”

Cherubini explained that there is a meteorological station in the forest, a meteorological station outside of the forest and a map of all the trees for each plot associated with the program. There are seventeen such plots in Switzerland alone.

“I have different questions that I try to answer depending on the problems each plot has,” he said. “I try to understand how to use tree rings in such Long Term Forest Ecosystem research.”

“The first obvious thing is to see the effect of extreme climate trends,” Cherubini said. “But what is really interesting, and probably a bit newer, is that not only the climate can be seen in the cross section of the tree rings, but also past management.”

Cherubini discussed several examples of past management that can be detected by looking at tree rings, including such practical applications as measuring the frequency of avalanches, drought, extreme cold temperatures and forest fires. The rings also discover man-made damage.

“The most important problem in Europe is traffic, and traffic is obviously causing air pollution problems,” he said. “We observed many O-zone induced damages.” Cherubini also discussed studies that he had conducted to determine if carbon-dioxide heavy areas stimulate tree growth.

“We didn’t find a growth enhancement forced by the carbon-dioxide,” he said. “[This is] probably because other resources, like nitrogen, [were] counteracting the positive effect of carbon-dioxide, or the drought effect at such sites is so strong that not even elevated carbon-dioxide concentration can really help trees to grow better.”

Cherubini then discussed the study of tree rings near the Mediterranean Sea. “The problem is that it is very difficult to study these tree rings,” he said. “I believe we should try to find a way to study this.”

Cherubini cited several advantages of studying these trees, including a signal in the tree rings of water stress as a means to record wild fires in the area.

Student reaction to this lecture was generally positive. “I thought it was a very informative talk,” said Maureen McIlhaney grad . “[I am] taking the dendrochronology lab, and I think that it fit in with what we were studying really well.”

Archived article by David Hillis