2012 is turning out to be an exceptional year in the eastern US. Starting out with what was essentially a #YearWithoutaWinter, followed by a heat wave in March, a hot summer, Macoun and Cortland apples coming in 2-3 weeks early, and the continuation of a severe drought in the Southern US that expanded into the Midwest and Northeast, this year’s climate doesn’t appear ‘normal’. From a 500-year perspective, this year’s drought in the northeast should actually feel like an exception for 58.2% of its people. While there have been droughts in the Northeast over the last 44 years, trees informed us that, as of 2011, we were living one of the wettest 43-year periods since 1531. It is shocking to see towns flood or covered bridges float away during tropical storms in the northeast. But, our new record suggests that the buildup of soil moisture prior to these storms might make these unusual[?] storms the norm.
Immediately preceding this epic pluvial (a period of increased precipitation) was the 1960s drought, one of the most intense droughts of the last 500 years. Having lived only during this epic pluvial, I cannot fathom this drought. Pluvial is my norm. So, every time I lead a hike or lab tour on campus, like during Lamont’s great Open House, I always ask if someone was alive during the 1960s drought. Heads tilt back, eyes come alive, and the stories pour out. People talk about tough times and odd events like a landfill catching on fire. I then congratulate them for surviving one of the worst droughts of the last 500 years. Then I have to say, “Uh, but it has been worse. Much worse.”
Often when looking deeper into Earth history, we see things that send shivers up our spine. For those who lived through the 1960s drought, our new record should send shivers up your spine. Our lab’s first study showed the 1960s drought to be the worst since 1700. However, when looking back almost another 200 years, we can say things like, “Yeah, the 1960s drought was bad, but it was only six years in duration.” [six years of below average conditions in our new record] Six years of drought is tough. It must have felt like a decade. But, how might we feel about 23 years of drought? How might a 23-year drought feel when the preceding 11 years had only a few years of average to above average precipitation? [shivers].
The current epic pluvial caps a 150-year wetting trend for the Northeastern US. This trend, however, is not limited to the Northeast. Much of the entire Eastern US has become wetter over the last 150 years. Only the Deep South has trended towards drought over the last 20-30 years.
For more on the development of our new record and some of the implications of what we found, go here. The rest of this post focuses on the contribution of biodiversity and broadleaf species to the new record.
Biodiversity, Broadleaf Species, & Tree-ring Reconstructions in Humid Regions
An interesting result of our study was that the use of a greater number of species can improve a tree-ring based reconstruction (for more examples, see here, here, here, here). Reconstructions have been made using multiple species in humid regions like southeastern NY State since the beginning, so the use of multiple species in not groundbreaking. But, our initial analysis indicates that using 10 records drawn from 10 species outperforms the 10 best chronologies regardless of species (best is defined as the strongest correlation to the climate data used for reconstruction). It seems biodiversity is not only good for life, it can be good for reconstructions of past climate.
We are not exactly sure why increased diversity might improve reconstructions. My pet hypothesis is that each species has a different sensitivity to its environment and that by combining multiple species, differing responses are filtered out, resulting in a more accurate common signal. Some of this is driven by genetics. Some of it could be driven by the ecology of the sites where trees live. Think of it in human terms: some people can eat whatever they want and never gain weight. Some of us look at a banana split and gain two pounds. We might disagree on what we want for dessert, but when offered a fine blueberry pie, or for us sweet tooths – maple cream pie, we can generally agree if it is righteous. I imagine trees have a similar response.
“Remember 1972? Wow, that was a good water year!”
“ Yes, that was a good year, but I really liked 1989.”
“Oh yeah, that was a good year. But what about 1833?”
All 27 records chime in chorus, “Most righteous. Water. Ever!!”
These findings bode well as tree-ring scientists move into new regions of study – say the rich, temperate, broadleaf forests of Asia, for example. Regions with a vast array of tree species could be a boon for the future of dendroclimatology (the reconstruction of climate from tree rings).
Thinking about how we can improve reconstructions is important. Many scientists are exploring new statistical techniques to extract a chorus of solidarity from trees. From a biological perspective, though, the rate of extinction (literal and functional) is a real threat to our science. Hemlock woolly-adelgid is wiping out hemlock trees, a stalwart species and one of the backbones of the North American Drought Atlas. The loss of hemlock and other important species will thus diminish future reconstructions. Replacements species are needed.
Of the 12 species used in our study, eight are broadleaf species. We found that tuliptree or tulip-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is one of the best species to replace hemlock*. Not only is it drought-sensitive, it has shown to be long-lived: a 512 years old specimen was recently found. Amazingly, only about half of its radius was recovered, as the tree was hollow. I would guess this species can live 600 to 700 years, if not more.
Our study also found other broadleaf species suitable for dendroclimatic research. These species include: black birch (for Yanques, but sweet birch for Southerners; Betula lenta), pignut and shagbark hickory (Carya glabra and Cary ovata, respectively), and northern red oak (Quercus rubra). While these trees do not live as long as hemlock or tulip, they are proving to live longer than expected. Continued exploration of species in the diverse eastern North American forest for maximum ages and climatic sensitivity should help dendroclimatological research as species are lost.
* Tuliptree is quickly becoming one of my favorite trees. It great longevity is a real treat. It is now the tallest documented tree in eastern North America now, too. But, it is how it handles drought that is so fun. Tuliptree is a drought-deciduous species, meaning that, during drought, it cannot close its stomata as well as other species to staunch the loss of water from its leaves. Therefore, it drops leaves to reduce water loss. If you paid attention to this tree in 2012, you would have noticed yellow leaves in July, a more common leaf color in September.
The really, really cool thing about this species, however, is that it also has indeterminate growth. This means that, unlike many temperate trees, its growth is not limited or set prior to the growing season. I once saw tuliptrees putting on new leaves in September following a dry August. This plasticity is awesome. It also suggests that September Song is not necessarily mournful for tuliptrees.