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Tracking Climate Change through Trees

Posted on Tuesday, August 06, 2013

After taking core samples of ancient trees in Greece, Samuel Williams '15, recipient of the Salisbury Summer International Internship Stipend, voyaged to Sweden to analyze the data.

Using tree ring research and dendrochronology to study global climate change, Williams worked as a research assistant to Dr. Paul Krusic, of the Department of Physical Geography and Quaternary Geology at Stockholm University.

Williams and Krusic began fieldwork in Samarina, Greece, seeking samples from the Bosnian Pine. The tree grows in an arid mountainous climate, which meant Williams and Krusic looked forward each day to a two- to three-hour, 2,200 meter hike, Williams says, "along mountain ridges and valleys, through snowfields and over limestone covered meadows to find the oldest wood possible to sample. There are some sketchy areas with extremely steep slopes that we had to cross in order to sample."

Williams' work was an extension of previous studies and climate models. The samples were analyzed using advanced tree ring measurements and samples of carbon from precisely dated wood to investigate the theory that plant life on earth is being affected by increasing levels of carbon emissions. In the past, samples from these regions have produced accurate reconstructions of past climates.

"One of the best tools for guiding our predictions into the future global climate is the ability to reconstruct and interpret extreme environmental consequences of climate change in the past," explains Williams.

With samples collected from their various stops across Greece -- from Samarina, to the national park in the Pindus Mountains, to Sparta, to Athens -- Williams and Krusic returned to the base of operations, the Dendrochronology Lab at Stockholm University, to analyze data.

Williams' interest in climate change was first ignited in a geology course at the Colleges. "During that class I learned what valuable information could be gained from the small rings inside of a tree -- and the impact that these rings could have on understanding and using the past climate as a tool for the future," Williams says.

While his classroom experience as an environmental studies and political science double major prepared him with passion and theoretical knowledge, Williams admits he was a novice at dendrochronology when the internship began.

Now, he has learned to operate the physical sampling equipment, to select sample trees and to determine sampling techniques to apply to living trees versus dead trees.

During the internship, Williams made "connections with people in and out of the scientific community from more than 15 countries across the globe," and gained "experience in both the fieldwork portion as well as the analysis portion of the scientific process."

"This work has inspired me to move in a direction I did not necessarily expect to go, but one I am extremely excited and committed to," says Williams. "After this experience, interacting with professionals in the field, I have discovered the importance of the work being done and how interesting and crucial it really is to our future."

Following his return from Greece and Sweden, Williams shared his findings on campus in a public seminar.

Williams' research is funded by the Salisbury Stipend, one of the most ambitious programs in the Colleges' history. Created by Honorary Trustee Charles H. Salisbury Jr. '63, P'94, L.H.D.'08, former chair of the HWS Board of Trustees, the fund provides financial support for each for three students interested in pursuing an international internship experience in a location of the student's choice. By supplementing classroom education with internship experience, students gain a practical understanding of the demands and rewards of future career opportunities as well as an opportunity to test their skills and realize their potential.    

 


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