Maybe the trees want to tell us something. They’re tall-standing observers that, depending on the species, can live well into their thousands. Over their lifespan, they soak in a range of environmental phenomena from rainy seasons to dry seasons, early frosts to forest fires and cold snaps to scorchers. They capture these experiences as if they write in a daily journal. Only the scribbled notes come in the form of tree rings, ingrained within the wood.
West Virginia University geography professor and paleoclimatologist Amy Hessl translates those notes. She’s a master at dendrochronology, the study of tree-ring growth patterns, which unravels climate histories and tells us how trees respond to environmental conditions.
Through tree rings, Hessl has reconstructed climate histories dating back to the first millennium in Mongolia. Currently, she’s engaged in a federally funded project to reconstruct a 2,000-year climate history of the Southern Hemisphere.
Hessl collected tree samples from Tasmania and Australia.
Findings from most tree ring-dating research mirror what science has been telling us all along about climate. It’s shifting. Dry areas are getting drier. Wet regions are getting wetter.Extreme and unusual weather events are popping up more frequently. And, according to NASA, the Earth is warming at a rate 10 times faster than it does when coming out of an ice age.
Hessl’s tree ring research is a single slice in the larger tapestry of WVU’s undertaking to understand and change outcomes for this universal issue that could alter the course for future generations and the planet.
The WVU Research Office is sponsoring more than 20projects tackling climate and weather issues, including their influence on human disease outbreaks, carbon sequestration and the spread of invasive species. Dozens of more initiatives are taking place in nearly every college on campus.
“Researchers at West Virginia University are engaged in understanding many facets of climate change,” said Fred King, vice president for WVU Research. “This ranges from research on long-term variations in the global climate, to policy that would address climate change, to the development of technologies that reduce CO2 output related to energy production.”
And then there are the trees.
The Forest For The Trees
Stacks of wood samples sit atop shelves inside Hessl’s lab in downtown Morgantown.
It’s a bit dusty there but not because of inactivity. It’s tough to keep it dust-free
with all of that wood.
Among the wood, computers and lab instruments, bumper stickers adorna small white refrigerator. One is of the punk rock band Fugazi — a slang word derived from the Vietnam War which means a “f—ed up situation.
A firefighter tries to put out a wildfire at a national reserve in Brasilia, Brazil,
Sept. 9, 2011. Drought, high temperatures and low humidity caused wildfires at several
places aroundBrasilia, according to officials. (Associated Press photo.)
”Perhaps it’s fitting for climate change.
One side of each wood slice has been sanded and smoothed out, making for clearer observations through the microscope. These samples came from more than 10,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, in Tasmania, Australia.
Hessl has traveled there herself and cut trees with a chainsaw. These trees, King Billy pines, are a coniferous species native to southern Tasmania. The tree rings within could provide answers to why countries south of the equator, especially Australia, have experienced drought-like conditions and less rain fall in recent decades.
This is likely tied to changes in a westerly wind belt, called the Southern Annular Mode, or SAM, that circles Antarctica and influences SouthernHemisphere climate, carbon and heat uptake and Antarctic ice melt. The National Science Foundation awarded Hessl a three-year, $219,263-grant to investigate the SAM via tree rings.
The SAM is the major influencer of climate variability in the middle to high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. Hessl says that the last few decades have seen westerly winds moving toward Antarctica, which creates dry conditions in the southern parts of Australia, Africa and South America. Due to the drier conditions, there’s been an uptick in wildfires on southern continents.
For this project, Hessl’s Australian collaborators will also examine two East Antarctic ice cores, which can contain ice up to hundreds of thousands of years old.
“We had a polar vortex this winter, and we’re seeing increased variability in the Northern Hemisphere’s climate, Hessl said. “Our weather vacillates radically between really cold and really warm. That phenomenon is not happening in the Southern Hemisphere, so those are contrasts we can look at and try to understand our own changing climate.”
Food For Thought
Eungul Lee remembers the lightning.
It was early January and the associate professor of geography was in the parking lot of the Student Rec Center, walking from his car into the gym when a loud clash rattled the winter Morgantown sky. “It was definitely unusual. I never experienced it in the last seven years,” he said.
For the 45-year-old who heads the WVU Climatology Lab, the weather is more than an app he checks each morning; it’s an existential topic.
Honey bee on the flower of a blueberry. (Associated Press photo.)
His research extends from Appalachia to the Arctic, and it touches what keeps humans ticking — food. In a green house on the Evansdale campus, Lee and colleagues — Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design faculty members Yong-Lak Park and Nicole Waterland — experiment with bees, parasites and blueberries. The trio determined that, under future climate scenarios, a bee parasite or mite, Chaetodactylus krombeini, will double in population by the year 2100.
The changing climate is extending the development stages of pollinator bees, Lee said. In turn, that prolongs the vulnerability of the bees for attack by the parasites. Currently, pollinator bees in Appalachia develop from March through July. Lee predicts the development stage could extend to year-round with the warming climate. The impact this will have on crops requires further study.
“The pollinator bee is important for the spring crop, like the blueberry, pear and apple,” Lee said. “There could be important implications on the economy and our agriculture.”
In the greenhouse, Lee’s team is tinkering for the ideal climate settings and temperature that allows the blueberry, which is 90-percent dependent on bee pollination, to thrive without the threat of the mite.
“Warming climate is more favorable for the mites and their reproduction,” Lee said. “We’re trying to synchronize the temperature windows in the greenhouse to make it less favorable for the mite but more favorable for the blueberry. It’s a big aim.”
North of the border, Lee’s research has drifted to a different food resource —wild game. Last year, he traveled to the Arctic to meet with Inuit villages around Cambridge Bay, Canada.
The Inuit are a group of indigenous peoples in the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska. He found that they are having shorter hunting seasons and are being forced to travel further to find meat, such as caribou. Lee plans to revisit Inuit communities this summer.
“This is the human dimension of climate change,” Lee said. “These are marginalized people, more vulnerable to climate change in a region that’s experiencing two or three times faster warming than other regions. We can look at the data all we want but we don’t know how it’s influencing the people unless we go out and have conversations with them.”
Stephanie Foote is obsessed with trash. The Jackson and Nichols professor of English is taking a more poetic approach to environmental issues. Yes, even the English department is involved in climate research.
In 2018, Foote was awarded the Carnegie Fellowship for her work related to the Anthropocene, the current geological epoch in which human activity has created a global effect onEarth’s climate and environment.
Foote is working on a book called “The Art of Waste,” which argues that garbage is the richest, most powerful text of our time. She’ll analyze a broad range of data from how garbage circulates globally to how it is burned, buried, salvaged and resold.
The climate has always changed. It’s just changing a lot faster now. Small changes in the climate can affect societies, but there are actions that society can take to with stand change. — Amy Hessl
“I study the way that garbage is not just a material that we have to deal with, but a text that contains within it a compressed historical record of our needs, and our desires, and the things that we have valued and the things that we don’t value anymore,” she said. “Those thing scan include places — like the places that we send our garbage are places that we imagine as being nowhere, or already wastelands. It can include people because the people who live around toxic garbage dumps, for example, are people that we have already imagined and represented as being garbage themselves.”
Telling stories about this research can be of great service, she said.
“One of the things that we talk about in the humanities is, what is the point of resistance for people to understand science? Is it ideological? Is it cultural? How can we better persuade people? How does the humanities teach people to imagine new relationships to the material world, to the climate and to the stories we tell ourselves about our effect on it?”
In particular, one area she’s been fascinated with is called climate fiction, also known as cli-fi. “I know, I know,” she said, laughing. “It’s areal genre though. If you want to make a million dollars, write a cli-fi novel. People are really drawn to these things.”
Foote points out that a lot of useful information can be gleaned from science fiction. “People can actually start to think about: What is the effect of one human life in along span of time? Or, what is the relationship between an ambition to mine minerals and the possible life that you will destroy doing that? Science fiction allegorizes those things and its increasing popularity speaks to a moment when people are trying to find ways to approach climate change through a story about science, rather than knowing science. I hope it draws them to more scientific information.”
Time to Act
If there’s anything climate scientists want the public to understand, it’s that climate change is not one-dimensional. And it shouldn’t be mired in politics. It’s science.
A snowstorm in the middle of January does not prove or disprove anything, they will tell you.
Debris and mud are strewn around Clendenin, W.Va., Saturday, June 25, 2016, afterfloodwaters from the massive storm that hit the area two days earlier receded. (Associated Press photo.)
Scientific information, as of late, has not been all that pleasant. The Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research says that the Canadian Arctic is experiencing the hottest temperatures it’s seen in more than 100,000 years. A 2018 study by an international team of scientists found that heat-related death sin the U.S. will rise five-fold by 2080.
On the other side of the planet, recent triple-digit temperatures in Japan killed at least 86 people. Mean while, in January, a bone-chilling -22 degrees Fahrenheit plunged Chicago into colder temperatures than Antarctica. The scientific consensus is that a hotter planet makes extreme weather more frequent.
Evan Kutta, WVU’s only atmospheric scientist and a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of WaterSecurity and Science, sees signs for hope.
“Because of all of those doomsday news articles, the general public is becoming more engaged,” Kutta said.“They’re beginning to take the threat more seriously and are demanding action. We need organized action to tackle this. Climate change is a moral issue.”
That sense of morality led Kutta to analyze the deadly June 2016 flash floods in West Virginia. Up to 10 inches of rain pummeled parts of West Virginia over a 12-hour period, resulting in 23 deaths and hundreds without homes. Kutta believes increased observation stations and technology can serve as better predictors of extreme weather events.
“Usually, cell phone towers can relay information back to a central location and that information can be fed into weather prediction models,” Kutta said. “Adding soil moisture sensors and precipitation and stream gauges in strategic positions across the state could tell us where flooding would be likely.”
Hessl, the paleoclimatologist, moved to West Virginia from California in 2001. She has raised a family here and considers the Mountain State home. One of her mantras is to conduct the research and let the politicians figure it out.
But it’s becoming a bit harder for her to sit on the sidelines and not inform the policymakers, both locally and nationally.
“In West Virginia, we need to think seriously about the increased flooding,”Hessl said. “That directly affects our most vulnerable populations.”
“The climate has always changed. It’s just changing a lot faster now. Small changes in the climate can affect societies, but there are actions that society can take to withstand change.”
“Are we being flexible and innovative in our solutions? Or are we just continuing to dig deeper into the same hole?”