Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tree-Ring Lab Tour

I had the privilege of taking a two hour tour of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research Saturday during an open house of their new building on the University of Arizona campus.  I have to say I was very impressed with both the tour of their research areas and the new building itself.  

First, the building...

 At first glance, the exterior of the Tree-Ring Lab building appears to have vertical metal slats shading the windows.  Closer inspection reveals an elaborate structure of hanging columns suspended by chains and swaying slightly in the breeze. [click on any picture for larger image]

The building design is kind of a highly abstract tree house: a round "trunk" first floor/lobby, upper offices/lab floors that extend out past the trunk, swaying columns outside the upper levels representing branches or leaves moving with the wind, and support beams forking like branches.

Short of an actual tree house, it is a very fitting modern structure to house an organization whose focus is on analyzing samples from trees.

The Lab has never had its own dedicated building on campus until now.  A 9 million dollar private donation made the new building possible.  Prior to that it was just, well, a pipe dream.  *smile*

I'll definitely have to revisit the building on a windy day to take a video of the building in motion.  Here is a closer view looking down from  a window.

The cylindrical interior lights over the stairwells are a nice touch.

Wood slats line the interior of the round 1st floor lobby.  I've seen several night pictures of the exterior of the building which look really nice with interior lights lighting these strips of wood.  The dark strip is a long tree-ring chronology with various historic events marking the appropriate annual growth rings on the strip.

The field of dendrochronology was created by University of Arizona Professor Andrew E. Douglass who established the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in 1937.  He used the unique patterns of annual tree ring growth to date when ancient cliff dwellings were constructed in the southwest.


The floor of the lobby has a number of large, really old, tree slices inlaid into the floor (petrified wood).

During the tour, a number of researchers described their work.  It was fascinating to hear how much information about the past can be determined by tree-ring analysis of various sorts: dating wood objects, studying drought history, determining original location of wood sources for constructed object found far from the source of wood, studying droughts, climate change, atmospheric conditions, volcanic eruptions, and even insect cycles.  The list goes on and on.



I was struck by how much enthusiasm all of the presenters had for their field of research -- it's great to see people genuinely excited about and liking their work!


The wood section below shows 200 years of rings on either side of "0": 200 BC to 200 AD. 

Below is the full radius from a single tree (closeup section above) that dates from -1231 BC to 1562 AD.  Longer chronologies are created by matching the unique growth ring patterns for other trees in the same region together, creating an overlap that lets the chronology be extended further in time.

The section of tree below is from the world's oldest known tree, 4000 years of rings!  Each of those small yellow triangles on the wood mark a century.

Science and research aside, the tree sections, ring patterns, and assorted cracks make for some pretty fascinating art.

The north side of the new building is the only side without the hanging cylinders.  I didn't notice it at the time I took the picture, but the beams not only represent abstract branches, they also seem to represent the cracking of tree slices (see cracks in previous photo).

There was also a coring demonstration which showed how they extract a small cylinder of wood without damaging a living tree.  The extracted cylinder of wood has all the rings and can be studied much like a full slice of tree, but with much less impact, less storage, etc.

I'd like to thank everyone at the Tree-Ring Lab for putting on a really outstanding open house -- I was quite impressed and enjoyed it greatly.  I think it would be great if they could be the focus of the annual Faculty Science Community Lecture series sometime.

[Links: for a quick overview of tree-ring science, check out the dendrochronology page over on wikipedia.  The Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research website.]

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