If a paleoclimatologist cuts down a tree in a forest does the sound of its falling "ring out?"
That's the question many dendrochronologists are asking themselves these days. Indeed, several of these scientists will be meeting at Copenhagen this week at satellite symposia during the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, which will be held here between December 7 and December 18, to discuss just this issue.
Amid the flurry of news stories centering around recently uncovered emails between CRU scientists concerning statistical manipulation of climate data, renewed interest in such controversial issues as the meaning of the word "consensus," and the significance of U.S. President Barack Obama waiting to attend the summit conference until the closing ceremonies, there has been a spate of discussions about the unintended consequences of gathering climate data.
Critical to understanding the climate change debate is the comparison of current climate models and data to historic data. There is compete consensus that data gathered over long periods of time, hundreds or thousands of years, yields more accurate results that data gathered in the last forty or so years.
Until recently, much of the long term data has been gathered anecdotally, from writers of the time. But anecdotal evidence is often unreliable. Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, for example wrote: "Sith waes worthen, he fayred through towns, and sume and most waes focking cold." But information such as this is often unreliable. Chaucer (especially) and other writers of the time were known to simply make stuff up.
Enter the dendrochronologists. This group of scientists are particularly adept at counting, specifically, counting tree rings. By counting tree rings, a process that entails going "one, two, three.. and so on," dendrochronologists are able to date precisely when a tree ring was formed, and thus figure out how old a tree is. Then, using this data and collating it with thickness information from the rings (another essentially counting discipline) they are able to tell us what the weather was like during any calendar year.
The method of counting rings involves a hollowed-core drill, which dendrochronologists bore into the side of a tree, then pull out and take apart, exposing the actual wood and its rings for examination. They do this on very old trees only; data on recent weather can be gathered from any local TV weather station's archives on the internet.
It was in just this manner that scientists were able to determine the age of "Methusala," believed to be the oldest living tree in existence. In 1957, using these core samples, this tree, a bristlecone pine living in a forest in the White Mountains of Eastern California, had its age determined to be 4789 years old at the time of the sampling. It is now 52 years older than that.
Part of the credit for the honors of being the oldest living tree must go to the notorious University of North Carolina student Donald Currey. In 1964, this Tarheal, while drilling on an old tree named "Prometheus" near Wheeler Peak in Easter Nevada, broke his core drill and obtained permission from the ever obliging U.S. Forest Service to cut down the tree. An examination of the resulting cross-section revealed this tree to be 4,844 years old, making it the oldest living tree --until it was cut down.
Back in Copenhagen, dendrochronologists plan on meeting on Saturday to discuss among other things, the theory of Unintended Consequences as it applies to their discipline. At an outdoor cocktail hour, complete with a roaring bonfire, dendrochronologists from the U.S., Japan and Russia plan to get together, and amid the general frivolity of the summit, talk about the future of the world's climate sciences.
Not least on their agenda will be the topic of what to do with all the wood left over from their field work. Even before they meet, two suggestions are already floating about, and, not surprisingly, scientists are lining up on opposite sides. The one camp is suggesting the excess wood be used to make hockey sticks, while the other side insists it be used to make smoking guns. "It's wood, after all," they say.
Their meeting should be anything but boring.