Drought in West? Tree rings reveal nightmares from past


If you think the 1930s drought that caused The Dust Bowl was rough, new research looking at tree rings in the Rocky Mountains has news for you: Things can get much worse in the West.

In fact the worst drought of this century barely makes the top 10 of a study that extended Utah’s climate record back to the year 1429.

With sandpaper and microscopes, Brigham Young University professor Matthew Bekker analyzed rings from drought-sensitive tree species. He found several types of scenarios that could make life uncomfortable in what is now the nation’s third-fastest-growing state:

  • Long droughts: The year 1703 kicked off 16 years in a row with below average stream flow.
  • Intense droughts: The Weber River flowed at just 13 percent of normal in 1580 and dropped below 20 percent in three other periods.
  • Consecutive worst-case scenarios: The most severe drought in the record began in 1492, and four of the five worst droughts all happened during Christopher Columbus’ lifetime.

“We’re conservatively estimating the severity of these droughts that hit before the modern record, and we still see some that are kind of scary if they were to happen again,” said Bekker, a geography professor at BYU. “We would really have to change the way we do things here.”

Modern climate and stream flow records only go back about 100 years in this part of the country, so scientists like Bekker turn to Mother Nature’s own record-keeping to see the bigger picture. For this study, the BYU geographer took sample cores from Douglas fir and pinyon pine trees. The thickness of annual growth rings for these species is especially sensitive to water supply.

Using samples from both living and dead trees in the Weber River basin, the researchers built a tree-ring chronology that extends back 585 years into Utah’s natural history. Modern stream flow measurements helped them calibrate the correlation between ring thickness and drought severity.

As Bekker and his co-authors report in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, the west’s climate usually fluctuates far more than it did in the 1900s. The five previous centuries each saw more years of extremely dry and extremely wet climate conditions.

“We’re trying to work with water managers to show the different flavors of droughts this region has had,” said Bekker. “These are scenarios you need to build into your models to know how to plan for the future.”

Bekker collaborated with researchers from the U.S. Forest Service, Columbia University and Utah State University. The team is currently working on a climate reconstruction based on tree rings that date back more than 1,000 years.


Drought in West? Tree rings reveal nightmares from past

20 Responses to Drought in West? Tree rings reveal nightmares from past

  1. m Usi u14217733 May 4, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

    This article just open up my mind and make me reliase that there are lots of things that am not aware about our nature.No wonder people are damaging the natural habitant by deforestration,mining,urban development (etc) is because some of them are not aware how trees can play such an important role in climate change.The research done on the tree.s rings and how they can predict when there was drought and when water will be in abundant will make people to start make change on how they are living.I believe that if people can be educated about the role of trees in the climate change will help improve climate condition in future.

  2. Franco (U13401123) May 4, 2014 at 11:41 am #

    Who would have thought that there is so much info in a tree ring? It has blown my mind.

    The research that Professor Bekker and his co-authors did on the tree, will it help us to improve the climate change that is currently happening and will this research help us to prevent the climate change?

    In the video Professor Bekker said that the information that they got from the tree rings will help the water managers to be better prepare for the drought that may occur in the future in the areas in which they are doing research.

    I think that Professor Bekker is on the right track to improve the drought management in the future for these areas in which they are doing research.

  3. Albert 14010870 May 4, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    It is truly amazing that trees can record so much detailed information dating back hundreds of years. By using microscopes and hi-tech equipment they can determine when there was a major drought or minor one. It just shows you how powerful nature is and how small we really are in this world.

  4. Josef Grobler (u14028052) May 4, 2014 at 1:34 am #

    This article describes how trees carry history, because the rings in the tree’s stem shows when there were droughts and when the water was plentiful. These are very interesting facts. It provides us with knowledge that we never possessed and opens our minds to make new discoveries. This shows that there are so much that we don’t know about our planet and the wonderful things that it possesses.

  5. Anke Roux u14133815 May 3, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

    This article is truly interesting and shows that we need to turn back to nature, in order to understand what effects pollution and earth-warming has on the earth.

    The discovery of using tree rings to see how the climate has changed over the past centuries, is a worthwhile discovery that can help us see to what extent climate changes are normal, what climate changes have already taken place and what climate changes can be expected in the near future. By knowing this, people can start to make a change in their way of living, to help prevent these types of drastic climate changes.
    It also stands as proof in the fact that we have to start living differently and more Eco-friendly, to prevent these climate changes.

    My only concern is the fact that dead as well as living trees are used in their research. We must find a way to use these trees and their rings without sawing them down or killing the tree, so we can protect and maintain the environment.

    I would like to see how this research progresses and what is found in further studies on these tree rings.

  6. u14321620 May 3, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    This has really opened my eyes to how useful trees are. I have always known that each ring of a tree represents a year but seeing how these rings are used to determine when there were droughts in that area is really insightful. I believe this data will be very useful – by comparing them to the current climates of that area, monitoring change in climates or when and where droughts were more common will be easier to conclude. These conclusions could lead to (like previously mentioned in the comments) other and greater scientific discoveries.

  7. Joseline Iga Nkhoma (14044138) May 3, 2014 at 12:31 am #

    Most people only think that trees are a necessity because they provide oxygen and decrease the levels on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; however this post clearly proves otherwise.
    Trees record information about the environment they grow in. Each ring represents a year and each ring has a darker and lighter area to show the seasons. Using the fact that the narrow rings represent droughts is a great way to understand how the climate has changed and also relate it to the people that lived around the area to look for repetitive patterns that can help prevent a drought from reoccurring. This like up to research by the Indiana State University which used the tree rings to find put the fire history of the area. This is helpful as it exposes the area’s fire history to create a fire polices. Knowing the fire cycle can also give more insight with regards to the season of burns and how frequent the area has fires. The kind of information could help the community prepare for the inevitable natural disasters.

  8. Michael Watson (14170834) May 2, 2014 at 10:52 pm #

    This article deals with very important issue – the ability to predict and accurately forecast climate change in the future. If this study is extended to other forests all over globe and is combined with research done on ice cores extracted in the polar regions, it may be possible to create a very accurate model of the history of earth’s climate. The effect of the present human induced spike in carbon and other greenhouse gasses emissions which has lead to global warming will impose a challenge to climatologists who will extrapolate their findings and predictions on the “tree-ring” model. Unless scientists can prove from this research that in the past there has been a similar rapid increase in greenhouse gasses I personally think that this can only be used to document earth’s climate in the past and not predict its future climate.

  9. Lesego(13125622) May 2, 2014 at 7:50 am #

    The article contains a lot of powerful information that will prepare us for what might happen in the near future. That will help us make new discoveries or rather the cause of the drought which,so as to make us aware of the factors that triggered.By so doing we will be able learn how to prevent a major disaster from occurring again and to educate others of what might happen if we do not look after our environment.

  10. 14028108 May 2, 2014 at 5:58 am #

    I have really enjoyed this blog and I am amazed at how old some of these trees had to be to go back 585 years. It is a really interesting way to track droughts. Maybe this study will help people realise how important it is to look after our water supply. If there was to be another one of these really bad droughts we would be unprepared. Now we can plan for a disaster like that. I was unaware that some type of trees’ rings were more sensitive to water supply, why is that? The way they take samples from the tree was a surprise and I was happy to realise they would not have to cut the tree down.

  11. Jason Bell (14036194) May 2, 2014 at 4:57 am #

    I find this article very interesting, because it showed that even though we have experienced some bad droughts over the years, it is nothing compared to some of the droughts in which this area has experienced. This knowledge we have gathered through this research is also going to help us in the future, if we ever experience a really bad drought. It will help us to be a bit more prepared for droughts and I think this knowledge can only help mankind.

  12. Nk(14113504) May 2, 2014 at 3:12 am #

    I find this article interesting as at school we were taught that the annual rings or tree rings are formed from secondary growth in the vascular cambium. These rings can be used to identify how old a tree is and the conditions it was exposed to during its growth. The width of the annual rings shows whether the tree had sufficient water in that year or if it had insufficient water that year. The colour of the annual ring can be used to determine if there was fire damage to the tree or not. However i was unaware of the applications of such a practice, the only one i could think of was dating the trees in an area. Reading this has shown me the effect of mankind and the strain we put on the environment when going through our everyday life especially if one is to consider the growing concern on things like global climate change and the decrease in the amount of pollutant free water. I agree with above comments and hope that we can use the data we can collect from tree rings to combat coming droughts and to better our relationship with the Earth.

  13. Rebecca King (14252377) May 2, 2014 at 2:57 am #

    The study of climate is now rapidly becoming one of the most important issues to scientists. The Earth goes through natural cycles of heating and cooling caused by the movement of the Earth in relation to the sun (Milutin Milankovic). Although the movements are quite minor, the effects are so drastic that they were the cause of the ice age and the increase in temperature we are experiencing today can also be attributed to this. During this time, it is natural for the ice glaciers to melt and it is even normal for the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to rise. However, in recent times the CO2 levels have risen way outside of the expected increase. This is concerning to the scientific world (and the world at large) because in the history of our planet, these levels have never been so high. Further and constant study is needed to try to predict the effects of this issue. That is why this blog is so interesting. People need to keep coming up with new ways to understand our Earth and the effects of climatic issues on the environment and the people who live in it.

  14. Robyn (14110352) May 2, 2014 at 12:00 am #

    I agree with what most of you are saying, this article was interesting, what I liked was the reference to the 1930’s Drought The Dust Bowl. Because that drought was caused by failure to apply dryland farming which removed the grasses that usually trapped the moisture in the soil. It just shows how the influence of man can stress and environment which is what we are doing today, I think to really stop these severe droughts from occurring people need to be educated on how to use the land in a way that benefits the Earth as well.
    The study of the rings like 14027268 said ”could assist them in discovering new information and trends.” By discovering these trends now we could prevent further climatic disasters.

  15. u14032742 May 1, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    I knew that tree rings were used to determine the age of a tree but I didn’t know that u could use them to predict droughts. This articles is very interesting but also raises some questions. It makes me wonder if at all this method could be used to predict droughts in the Karoo climate of Southern Africa since the vegetation in the Southern hemisphere differs immensely to the Northern hemisphere?
    Most droughts that happen in the southern hemisphere are El Nino induced. The worst El Nino induced drought in Southern Africa was in 1982 and it costed the government billions of US dollars in damage. Southern Africa is a poor region that depends on farming a lot so would be nice if a similar method of drought prediction could be used on the natural vegetation of the Karoo

  16. Max 14165644 May 1, 2014 at 11:45 am #

    This article deals with a most important topic in our current day and age, the forecasting and history of climate and weather patterns, especially considering that we have accelerated changes in climate to deal with, the information these trees can give us could help us better prepare for droughts in the future. The information accumulation and analysis is at the moment in a small area but if it could be expanded upon around the world, then climate forecasting for the entire world could be analyzed. This could especially help farmers, as they could better prepare for bad or long droughts, and in turn this could help with increasing the worlds food security. It could also prepare whole towns for droughts so that they will not need to be evacuated.

  17. dormand May 1, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    The exceptional overuse of the drainage in the Colorado River watershed is destined to result in unprecedented levels of conflict over access to this vital resource.

    While golf courses are inundated with scarce water, the total amount available is grossly inadequate.

    At some point in time the vibrant growth of cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas is going to come to a screeching halt when the drainage does approach drying up.

    The agony of the housing crisis meltdown may seem minor to what we see when the spigot runs dry.

    We need to observe and implement best practices in recycling and plant management before the crisis hits.

  18. 14027268 May 1, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    I thoroughly agree with the previous comment as it highlights the benefits of this method of mapping out the water flow of previous years on earth through the use of abiotic and biotic factors. This article also highlights the use of the past and past events to prepare ourselves and our way of life for a possible repeat of these patterns of drought as seen in the years of Christopher Columbus. This mapping out of the past furthermore allows scientists more data on what life was like previously which could assist them in discovering new information and trends.

  19. Charissa (14277761) May 1, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    I think this article does deal with a very interesting topic. It is interesting and can also be useful to study ancient climates of regions. I think it could be useful to see how climate has changed over the years especially now as the global climate does seem to be changing due to enhanced greenhouse gases. It would also be interesting to see if industrialisation and urbanisation have had any effect on the Utah region’s climate. Would the increased human activity lead to improved conditions or worse conditions? The dates in the article of the worst climate condtions seem to be in the earlier period of the time being studied rather than the later period, which could indicate that increased settlement improves climate conditions. However there are still the dust bowls of the 1930s, when the area was still to a large extent being settled, which might indicate otherwise. The findings reported in this article must also have implications on those living in the area–climate conditions worse than those experienced during the dust bowls could be devastiing to the area now.

  20. 14015278 May 1, 2014 at 6:06 am #

    This article proves to be very intresting and could lead to major discoveries. As it was gathered from the research above, and previous scientific findings, the climatic conditions of of a specific region can be determined by analyzing various aspects of both the abiotic and biotic factors in that environment. In this case the bark of trees were studied. In an other case one could analyse the rock strata. This could lead to new finding regarding planet earth.

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