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How tree rings can help us learn about the climate changes that we will face in the future by allowing us to look back on the past.

How tree rings can help us learn about the climate changes that we will face in the future by allowing us to look back on the past.

“The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward,” Winston Churchill proclaimed to the Royal College of Physicians in 1944, invoking a much older idea known as “uniformitarianism”.

Charles Lyell and James Hutton geologists came up with this idea. They believe that past processes, such as erosion and climate change, have led to newer, more sustainable processes. altered the Earth over time remain similar, so we can analyse them to understand the consequences of future processes – such as, how climate change might shape our planet in the years to come.

The science of astronomy still follows this principle of looking back to the past in order to see the future. palaeoclimatology, or the study and analysis of past climates.

The example is: geological recordThis tells us that there were palm trees in Antarctica many millions of years ago, when CO₂ was at 1,000 parts per million in our planet’s atmosphere.

Looking back to this periodWhen the planet was experiencing naturally high levels CO₂ levelsThis book helps us to imagine what life might look like if we fail to achieve net zero emissions and greenhouse gas emissions rates continue to rise.

The greatest tools we have for looking into the past are called proxy climate records. These are natural archivesClimate records include ice cores. lake sediments. corals. cave stalagmites. peat. These archives give us climate change data that goes back further than the few hundred year-old information we can obtain from human instrumental weather records.

My research focuses on the use of data from trees to reconstruct historical climate conditions around the globe, from EuropeTo MalaysiaTo ChinaAnd South Africa.


The tree trunks’ annual rings, which form in tree trunks, are the most reliable proxy for understanding the climate of recent times. It is called “Using tree rings to reconstruct climate” dendroclimatology.

In the UK’s temperate climate, trees form a ring because they stop growing in the winter, forming a ring boundary at the start of each cold season. In other climates the ring boundary is the dry season. The width of rings, wood density, and changes in wood chemistry are all affected. all recordWhat was the weather like in the year that the ring was made? Over timeTrees accumulate a record about climate change in their trunks. Each value can be compared to a calendar-year.

A cross-section of a tree trunk showing its rings
Tree rings provide a detailed archive of the tree’s local climate.


Trees’ presence across most of the globe – and the ready availability of old tree samples in buildings, churches and boats, thanks to their construction from wood – are the reason tree rings are such a powerful data source. Our tree ring records date back by linking together dead wood and living trees. thousands of years.

One of the most important results from global tree rings studies has been the observation that over the last 2,000 yearsThe entire planet has never warmed or cooled before the industrial revolution. at the same time. This is a rare feature of human-driven climate changes in the industrial era. It is almost everywhere that the planet is warming.

To understand how climate changes as the planet heats, we can look back at periods of naturally anomalous climate over the last few thousand year. The medieval records show that climate anomalies can affect different places. in different ways.

The Medieval Climate Anomaly, for example, was named for the unusually warm temperatures experienced across Europe in the middle ages – although the eastern tropical Pacific region actually became cooler during this time.

Stalagmites in a cave
Cave stalagmites are natural archives that can store climate records in their deposited layers.


Tree rings help us to understand past patterns in wet and dry climate phases. Tree growth is more sensitive to rain in areas like across the country. EuropeThe Asian monsoon region? North America and Mexico, information from thousands of tree rings has been used to build up “atlases” of past changes in rainfall. These reconstructions paint a stark picture on the relationship between the development and stability of our climate.

An aerial view of a field in England
The UK has had a history of flooding in summers that have caused disasters for the local population.

The archaeological wood of the western US and northern Mexico provides a record of drought intensity for 1200 years. This record reveals “megadrought” phases, where low rainfall led to narrow tree rings.

These narrowing rings are closely related to historical records that show the collapse of local communities. Native AmericanCommunities that survived a drought, according to tree rings records, lasted for decades.

Wet summers have been more detrimental to the UK’s population than dry ones. They can cause crop failures and are more common in the UK. Climate information in ancient British oaks reveals when Europe and the UK had successive cool, wet summers.

One such event, in the 1310s, has been called the Dantean anomalyA European agricultural crisis caused the death of one-sixth the population. Wet summers led crop failures and famine.

The storiesThe trees’ past climates provide a fascinating insight into how social stability and climate stability are intertwined. These stories from climate conditions in the past raise questions about the future we envision.

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