Centuries-Old Tree Key To Understanding Climate Variation

Jun 11, 2014

Director of Canyonlands Research Center Dr. Barry Baker was walking in Cottonwood Creek with his wife last fall when he spotted something out of the ordinary—a tree hovering above the creek bed, buried in a deep layer of sediment. 

Base of juniper tree encased in sediment.
350-year-old juniper tree discovered in Utah's Indian Creek last fall may hold answers to climate variability in the region.
Credit Barry Baker / The Nature Conservancy

“I figured it had been there a while and was hoping that we could study the tree to get some insight into past climatic regimes and sedimentation regimes in the area,” said Baker.

With permission from the Bureau of Land Management, a research group from Utah State University including Baker and Dr. Tammy Rittenour returned to the site this spring to extract the 13-foot tree.

The group cut 2-inch “cookies” throughout the tree to determine its growth history by observing the embedded tree rings. Carbon dating suggests the youngest part of the tree is around 350 years old. Baker said the tree may provide insight into the past climate of the area.

“What we’re trying to do is get a good understanding into what’s natural climatic variability, and just natural variability in the area,” said Baker.

Researchers on the project plan to look at other trees in the area and reconstruct a climate history of the region. Baker said this map may help scientists understand interplay between land use and climate change in the region, one of the main purposes of the Canyonlands Research Center.