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Scientists Discover the History of Storms in Tree Rings

Turns out tree rings can do more than just tell you how old a tree is, bu can help track Pacific storms over centuries. This finding could help out water managers.

June 7, 2017

Turns out tree rings can do more than just tell you how old a tree is. Researchers have found they can also help track Pacific storms over centuries. That could help out water managers and climate modelers.

To get that data, first Erika Wise had to collect core samples of more than 200 ponderosa pines in Washington’s Columbia Basin. 

Erika Wise and Matt Dannenberg look at a newly sampled tree core in the Okanogan National Forest. Troy Knight

“Some of the ponderosa pine trees date bake to the 1400s,” Wise said. “They’re incredibly old trees, and they’re on these ridges with this view of Yakima down below.”

Wise is an associate geographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the lead author of the report. It was published in Science Advances.

Next, Wise wants to use tree rings to look at storms in different seasons, which is expected to shift with climate change.

Researchers used ponderosa pine tree core samples to help track Pacific storms over centuries. This is the view of a sanded core under the microscope showing a marker year. Erika Wise

She said this research provides an important baseline for storm strength and frequency. A lot of instrumental data dates back 100 years; storm track data goes back about 50 years.

This new study extends that data back hundreds of years  — especially important in the face of budget cuts and as researchers are predicting what could happen in the future.

“We really need that monitoring data because we can’t detect changes unless we have that underlying data,” Wise said.


Erika Wise cores a ponderosa pine in the Wenatchee National Forest, with Mount Rainier in the background.

Aaron Beyerlein