Of the thousands of stories that came out of Hurricane Rita and its aftermath, this one runs rings around all the others. Rita did hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage in Texas and Louisiana. It also created the opportunity of a lifetime for people who study tree rings, because it blew down an estimated two million trees in southeast Texas alone, including a lot of very old and large trees, and this is what is attracting tree scientists from all over the country.
In Beaumont, Lamar University Earth Sciences Department head Jim Jordan says dendro-chronologists, as they’re called, don’t get many chances like this.
Studying tree rings does the same thing for earth sciences that pathology does for biology, medicine and law enforcement. It can reveal all sorts of useful things, and just as pathologists have to work with dead people, dendrochronologists have to work with dead trees. Jordan says getting thousands of old dead trees to study all at once is a golden opportunity, because some are hundreds of years old.
Jordan says tree rings tell much more than just the age of a tree. Dendrochronologists work like CSI’s at a crime scene, and study thinly sliced cross sections of a tree to learn about environmental and climate changes in the immediate area around the tree, and in the larger region around the forest.
Jordan says as an earth scientist, he saw dead trees as opportunities to learn about the ecological history of this part of the country, so he spread the word in scientific circles for dendrochronologists to “come on down.” One group from Indiana is already there, and more are expected this week. Jordan says they’re out gathering sample cuttings and borings as fast as they can, because rot and mildew are setting in, and that will ruin a tree’s scientific usefulness. He says the scientists will study their samples for years, and maybe turn a giant negative into something positive.