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News Release

Date: February 22, 2013

Looking Back in Time at Utah’s Climate

FORT COLLINS, Colorado, February 22, 2013 - A decade of collecting tens of thousands of tree ring samples from throughout the western United States is providing USDA Forest Service and Utah State University researchers with new data and a promising new way to reconstruct Utah’s past climate change patterns.

This study, recently published in the Journal of Hydrometeorology (February 2013, Vol. 14, No. 1, 375-381) and presented by lead author and US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station researcher Justin DeRose at the 2012 Forest Inventory and Analysis Symposium in Baltimore, MD, involved more than 3,500 tree ring samples in Utah alone. The large number of samples and close spacing between sites provides a much finer resolution than any known conventional tree ring records.

“As a tree grows, it produces a ring for each year that it ages,” says DeRose. “The thickness of each ring normally reflects fluctuations in climate conditions. For example, a harsh climate produces narrower rings because trees grow slowly, while a favorable climate produces wider rings as trees grow faster. Because of this, dendrochronologists (tree ring scientists) have traditionally selected trees from sites that are most sensitive to climate fluctuations. As a result, these sensitive sites are relatively far and few between. One important finding of the current study is that forest-grown trees record the same signals that are found on highly-sensitive sites, meaning that climate signals can be found almost everywhere,” he said.

Climatologist and co-author Simon Wang, of USU’s Department of Plants, Soils, and Climate, said that the new tree ring dataset “essentially provides a telescope for us to look into Utah’s past climate with great detail. For example, we know that 150 years ago the phenomenon of El Niño affected the entire state of Utah, rather than the weak opposite effect divided between northern and southern Utah we see today.” The team hopes that by extending the dataset to the rest of the Interior West, and eventually to the West Coast, that it will be possible to produce map climate drivers such as El Niño over progressively larger areas and longer time scales.

The new dataset not only contributes to building climate records, it also benefits ecological and forestry research and management. “This information will help answer questions about our forests’ past at a level of detail never before attempted,” said John Shaw, Biological Scientist at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. Shaw, who is stationed in Ogden, Utah, says this data set is far from finished, as many thousands of samples from across the Interior West await being processed and analyzed. Upon completion, a very high-resolution climate data set will be reported and made available to the research community.

A copy of the paper is available at http://www.fs.fed.us/rmrs/docs/news/releases/13-01-tree-rings.pdf.

The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) is one of seven regional units that make up the U.S. Forest Service Research and Development organization - the most extensive natural resources research organization in the world. The Station maintains 12 field laboratories throughout a 12 state territory encompassing the Great Basin, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and parts of the Great Plains, and administers and conducts research on 14 experimental forests, ranges, and watersheds, while maintaining long-term databases for these areas. RMRS research is broken into seven science program areas that serve the Forest Service as well as other federal and state agencies, international organizations, private groups, and individuals. To find out more about the RMRS go to www.fs.fed.us/rmrs. You can also follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/usfs_rmrs.


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