By Ana Camila Gonzalez
My feet are soaking wet and I’m playing a game of Marco Polo, but I’m nowhere near a pool. It’s my second day on the job. It’s my second week of college. I have no idea what to expect.
I’m a first year undergraduate student at Columbia University, and I just began to work at the Tree Ring Lab at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory after being told by a few upperclassmen that the Lamont campus “just isn’t for freshmen”.
On Friday, September 21st, several members of the lab headed to New Paltz, NY to do some field sampling for a project aiming to uncover particularly major ecological events in the Eastern United States in the past three hundred years. I had just started to understand the basic concepts of differing tree rings. When I was told we’d be coring trees and identifying them, I smiled and nodded my head enthusiastically. You should see my poker face.
We get to the town of New Paltz and drive right through the center, heading towards Minnewaska State Park.
After a deceivingly easy one mile hike on road-like paths, we get to the entrance point for the plot that was pre-designated Jackie, Dario, and Neil earlier in the spring. From that point on, I get to witness the transition from a suburban hike to what seems to be the set of Jurassic Park. We’re heading into the area surrounding a ravine, and my feet remind me that I’m not wearing waterproof boots. At some points I feel like I’m in a maze, and I start yelling MARCO! At that point I start remembering that I took the job because I wanted some hands-on experience in the field of environmental science. Grabbing the four-foot fern in front of me, I feel that I’ve made the right choice.
After some strolling, climbing and maneuvering, we finally reach the plot. Here I finally get to see what the overall project is really about.
While some forest ecosystems in the Western United States recycle nutrients and move through successional cycles at fairly large scales through natural and necessary fires, these processes are much slower and do not seem to occur at larger scales in the temperate forests of the Northeast. Trees experiencing suppressed growth only receive the necessary sunlight, water, and nutrients to experience quicker growth when surrounding competing trees perish, either through logging, disease, windstorms, or similar ecological processes. One can see this change as a drastic change in the width of tree rings: once a previously suppressed tree becomes dominant, the increased growth results in relatively wider tree rings.
When this drastic change is seen not only in the rings of one or two trees but across an entire forest ecosystem, a major ecological event is likely the cause. This project is aiming to find the causes of a few suspected major ecological events in the Eastern United States.
In New Paltz in particular, this project encountered a roadblock- some people believed our study forest in Minnewaska State Park was an old-growth forest, but so far the samples brought back have found evidence of logging in the late 1800s. The first samplings, using plots with a radius of 20 meters, returned few older trees that would be useful to the project. The radius was thus increased to 30 meters, and only trees with diameter greater than 40cm were cored past the 20 meter mark. After this adjustment, the second sampling returned double the amount of older trees. The real science can begin.
So here I am, learning all of this for the first time, and I’m fascinated. Another new student and I learn to core a tree, and we realize how physically strenuous it is, laughing about having to lift weights to get in shape for future fieldwork. Like that’s ever going to happen. We’re introduced to a few different tree species during the process, and we begin to learn how to identify them. For the past few days I’ve walked around trying to identify every tree in Morningside Park.
At the end of the day, I’m feeling pretty fulfilled. The way back to the trail isn’t as cinematic as my entrance through Jurassic Park, but I still feel like I won’t get up after sitting down in the car.
That night, I got a rare chance to talk to my cousin, a botanist in Cuba. I told him about my day and he told me that if I start beginning to enjoy science, and the general act of finding answers to questions others might not have thought of asking, it becomes an obsession. He told me I wouldn’t be able to get away from it. I think I’m starting to get a sense of that. I was hoping to land a job at the LDEO that would just let me begin to get my feet wet in environmental science. So far they’ve gotten soaked, but I have a feeling I’ve only started to dip my feet in the water.
This is the first in a series of guest posts by Ana Gonzalez, a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University. Ana is a research assistant at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis starting off with the joys of field work.