Trees ain’t thermometers

I used to work on Mountain Home State Forest in the southern Sierra. MHSF has about 3000 specimen-sized sequoia within its boundaries. Dendrochronolgists often visited to see the stumps from logging in the mid to late 1800s. These were often over 2000 years old when they had been cut.

The Dendrochronolgists were interested in the tree-ring patterns. Trees grow fast or slow in response to many factors and these seasonal factors (light, water, nutrients) created ring signatures or patterns. Certain years might have been favorable for growth with plentiful water, light and nutrients (each favorable year would be marked a large, wide ring) and certain years might have had poor conditions for growth–drought, late spring conditions, early winter–marked by thin (in some cases–microscopic) rings. In general, the wider the ring the more favorable the growing season, the narrower the ring the poor the growing conditions. These ring patterns can be distinctive and can be used to date archeological sites (where wood is present).

Oxford’s Tree-ring Laboratory put it this way:

The way dendrochronology works is relatively simple. As a tree grows, it puts on a new growth or tree-ring every year, just under the bark. Trees grow, and put on tree-rings, at different rates according to the weather in any given year: a wider ring in a favourable year and a narrower ring in an unfavourable year. Thus, over a long period of time (say 60 years or more) there will be a corresponding sequence of tree-rings giving a pattern of wider and narrower rings which reflect droughts, cold summers, etc. In effect, the span of years during which a tree has lived will be represented by a unique fingerprint, which can be detected in other geographically-similar tree-ring chronologies.

Using tree rings as a proxy for temperature however is fraught with caveats and pitfalls.

Mike D.‘s of the Western Institute for Study of the Environment comment (on William M. Briggs’ blog) about using tree ring data as proxies for temperature is an excellent explanation of the problems of using tree ring growth for temperature. He starts with how tree rings are laid down:

Diameter growth on any tree is theoretically a sigmoid growth function. No tree puts on constant radial growth year after year. Trees grow by adding a layer of new wood at the cambium, under the bark. Each year a larger surface area is added. If growth is constant, the rings get narrower. But growth is never constant. There is significant deviation from ideal (model) sigmoid diameter growth in individual trees regardless of the weather. Even when sigmoid growth models are used, the natural variation adds statistical error.

Two sigmoid curves. The taller is the period annual increment for cubic feet; the lower smoother S curve is for mean annual increment of cubic feet.

So as the diameter expands, the amount of material put on would need to be more if the ring’s width was to stay the same as the previous season. Think of a clay disk that you add the same amount of clay to in successive rings. The volume of clay would be the same but the thickness of each new ring would decrease. The ring growth is S-shaped (sigmoid) because initially the tree has little foliage for photosynthesis and often puts its initial years into root development for survival. Then once roots are deep enough the tree puts its growth into height and width.

He then points out that tree-to-tree competition for light, water, and nutrients also affects the ring growth:

Dense stands exhibit narrow rings on individual trees, sparser stands may have wider ring growth, yet both stands may have equivalent gross growth. That’s why only open-grown trees are supposed to be selected for ring studies. But nobody knows what the tree density surrounding an individual tree was 100, 200, 500 years ago. Competitors could have arisen and died without leaving evidence of their presence so long ago. More error.

Besides competition, disease and injury can affect growth.

Trees can sustain injuries that affect growth, such as top and branch damage, that are difficult to detect 200 years later, especially a few feet off the ground where the rings are sampled. There are very few pristine, undamaged trees. I know, having searched for such across broad acreages. Open grown trees at high elevations are always damaged. A heavy winter snow can snap off branches and the tree will exhibit reduced diameter growth for a few years, even if growing season conditions are ideal.

This makes using tree ring data as stand-ins for temperature problematic.

Ring width has all but been abandoned as a temperature proxy. Instead, the latest technique is sampling rings for O18 ratios, under the assumption that O18 varies with temperature. Regardless of the ring width, the O18 ratio is supposed to have recorded growing season temperature. But that theory is fuzzy and mushy, and O18 ratios in living trees correlate very poorly with known growing season temperatures. In other words, it calibrates with much error at best.

Trees are not thermometers, but even thermometers have some serious measurement error problems.

Tree ring studies are a fad akin to phrenology and other discredited pseudosciences that has not dissipated as it should have decades ago.

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