Trees hold the secrets to centuries of climate data

Researchers constructed a hydrographic map of South America going back 600 years.

Mariano Morales is an environmental scientist at the Argentinian Institute of Snow Science, Glaciology, and Environmental Sciences. This is her story from the field as told to Sandra Gutierrez G.

Over the last half century, extreme droughts and heavy rain have become increasingly common in the countries that hug the Andes. The mountain chain, which stretches along the western coast of South America, blocks incoming moisture and wind from ocean currents. This drenches the land on the seaside and leaves the inland regions in long dry spells.

We know that climate change may affect these currents, and we want to prepare for the shifts in weather. Computer models can help predict future events, but data about past fluctuations can make the models more robust and accurate.

So in 2011, my team started creating an atlas of the region’s floods and dry spells going back 600 years. We collected weather station logs, historical newspapers, and additional archival documents, but there were many gaps. So we went to nature’s own database: We analyzed the rings of more than 13,000 trees from the Andes, drilling tiny cylindrical holes into the trunks and extracting samples of their cores. Each layer represents one year, and its size can tell us about conditions at the time. Wet seasons allow for growth spurts that create wider bands, whereas dry stretches produce much thinner ones.

The final map is both a time capsule and a tool to forecast and withstand future swings.

This story appears in the Winter 2020, Transformation issue of Popular Science.

Sandra Gutierrez G.
Sandra Gutierrez G.

Sandra Gutierrez is a Chilean journalist and the assistant DIY editor at PopSci. She has previously worked as an editor for MSN.cl, and a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. When she's not putting baking soda on things, she's walking her 10-year-old beagle, Lucas. Contact the author here.