The Southeastern Coastal Plain Tree-Ring Laboratory

The Southeastern Coastal Plain Tree-Ring Laboratory is a collaboration between the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Program and Research Associate Jean Huffman. Huffman is a local expert in dendrochronology and has been working to develop tree-ring based records of fire in Florida since the late 1990s. The three researchers are working now together to uncover the fire history of several sites throughout Florida and southern Georgia, building records that will hopefully extend back into the 1600s, possibly earlier.

Very little research of this type has been conducted in our region. In the Red Hills and throughout the Southeastern Coastal Plain, this type of information has the potential to provide further justification for implementing frequent prescribed burns in the modern day.

If you would like to support our new and growing laboratory, please click on the “DONATE” button on the left, and specify that the donation is for tree-ring research in the box under “Other Donation.”

Monica Rother  Jean Huffman  Kevin Robertson
Members of the Southeastern Coastal Plain Tree-Ring Laboratory at Tall Timbers including Monica Rother (left), Jean Huffman (center), and Kevin Robertson (right). Photos courtesy of Michelle Smith (Rother photo), Rose Rodriguez (Huffman photo), and David Godwin (Robertson photo).

What is dendrochronology and how can it be used to learn about past fires?

Dendrochronology is the branch of science that is focused on the analysis of tree rings. The word has its roots in Greek, with dendro meaning tree and chronology referring to the study of time. An important sub-field of dendrochronology is dendropyrochronology, or the use of tree rings to learn about previous fires (pyro meaning fire!). Scars created by past fires are used to determine how frequently and in what season fires affected a given site, and can also sometimes reveal the spatial coverage and severity of past fires. Tree-ring based fire histories are extremely valuable because they provide direct evidence of fires extending long into the past.

Archiving old wood

In addition to conducting much needed research on historic fire regimes in the Southeastern Coastal Plain, our lab also aims to serve as an archive for old wood that may be useful for future research. Old stumps contain a wealth of information about the past within their rings. Unfortunately, stumps and old trees are both rapidly disappearing in the region due to conversion of pine ecosystems to other uses (e.g. housing developments), natural decay, and the practice of stumping (deliberate removal of stumps after logging for resin), among other causes.

Current projects:

Kevin Robertson uses a chainsaw to extract a fire-scarred stump at Millpond Plantation in February of 2016.

RED HILLS, GEORGIA: In the Red Hills Region in southern Georgia, we have begun collecting sections of fire-scarred longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) through extractions of stumps after single-tree selection harvests. We aim to uncover the fire history of a region famously associated with fire. We are actively seeking funding to move this research forward.

ST. JOSEPH BAY STATE BUFFER PRESERVE, FLORIDA: We are currently reconstructing the year and season of fires that occurred at three sites within St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve, Florida. Our oldest sample that we have analyzed so far dates back into the late 1500s. Many of the samples contain dozens of fire scars.

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE: Our newest project is at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Florida. With local collaborators, we were able to use an excavator to extract old stumps from a flatwoods site.

Different stages of wood processing including a full stump (left), individual cross sections (center), and a sanded section ready for analysis (right).

Relevant publications:

Huffman, J. M., W. J. Platt, H. D. Grissino-Mayer, and C. J. Boyce, (2004). Fire history of a barrier island slash pine (Pinus elliottii) savanna. Natural Areas Journal 24(3):258–268.

Huffman, J. M., (2006). Historical fire regimes in southeastern pine savannas. Ph.D. dissertation, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Huffman, J.M. and Platt, W.J. (2014). Fire History of the Avon Park Air Force Range: Evidence from Tree-rings. Research Report.

Rother, M.T. and Grissino-Mayer, H.D. (2014). Climatic influences on fire regimes in ponderosa pine forests of the Zuni Mountains, New Mexico, USA. Forest Ecology and Management 322, 69–77.

Huffman, J.M. and Rother, M.T. (2017). Dendrochronological field methods for fire history in pine ecosystems of the Southeastern Coastal Plain. Tree-Ring Research 73(1): 42–46.

For questions or comments about this research, please contact Dr. Kevin Robertson.