Why Trees Have Rings (and why they are so useful)

Dendrochronology is a field of study that focuses on tree rings. Though it may not be obvious, the amount of information we gain from looking at these rings is astounding. This research goes far deeper than simply finding out how old a tree was when it died. Dendrochronological data can be used to investigate paleoclimates, paleoecologies, and the archaeological dating of buildings and artwork. It is amazing how a practiced eye can look back in time. To date, we have an unbroken dendrochronological record for the northern hemisphere dating back some 13,900 years!

All of this would not be possible if it were not for tree rings. But what exactly are they and how do they form? The answer is physiological. Essentially tree rings result from patterns in vascular tissues. Early in the spring, before the leaves start to grow, a layer of tissue just under the bark called the cambium begins to divide. In this cool, water-laden time of the growing season the vessels that are produced are large and less dense. This is the beginning of the spring or early wood. Although they are not as strong as vessels that are produced later in the season, they sure can move a lot of water. Things are a bit different for conifers. Because they do not produce vessel elements in their wood, this large cell growth is initiated instead by large amounts of a growth hormone called auxin that is produced by the new buds. This causes the cells of the early wood in conifers to grow large in a similar way to that of the hardwoods. 

As summer heats up, things start to change. The cambium starts producing smaller, thicker cells. The vessels that result from this are much stronger than those of the early wood. This late wood as it is called gives trees much of their rigidity and strength. Late wood is also resistant to what is called cavitation, a process in which water within the tree can literally vaporize, causing a damaging embolism during the hottest months of summer. In conifers, bud growth stops by mid to late summer and with it much of the production of auxin. This results in smaller vessels as well. 

In temperate regions, this cycle of growth occurs over the course of a growing season. As such, each ring demarcates a year in that trees life. Because so much of a trees growth is determined by environmental conditions, the size and shape of the rings can tell a lot about the conditions in which that tree was growing. That is why dendrochronology is such a useful tool. By looking at tree rings from all over the world, researchers can tell what was going on at that point in time. And, though it was long thought that this was a phenomenon restricted to seasonal forests, we are finding that even some tropical trees produce annual growth rings. This is especially true in regions that have a measurable dry season. It just goes to show you that data comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms.

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