Tall Timbers Dendrochronology Lab

Cross section of a scarred tree showing multiple fire scars. The Fire Ecology Program has launched the Tall Timbers Dendrochronology Lab. Dendrochronology is the study of tree rings to reconstruct aspects of the history of an area, including the fire regime recorded by fire scars, as well as climatic patterns reflected by tree growth patterns. Fire scars can record both the year and the season when fires occurred. Gaining knowledge regarding historic fire regimes is of great interest for understanding fire as a natural and cultural ecological process. It is also important for defending the practice of prescribed burning by placing it in a larger historical and ecological context.

Dr. Jean Huffman, who is one of only two dendrochronologists who have published fire history reconstructions from tree scars in the southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain, is joining forces with the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Program. She plans to continue the remarkable work she has initiated near the St. Joseph Peninsula, central Florida sand ridges, and the Red Hills Region. Although this collaboration has been in the works for some time, the timing is prodigious as the Program’s new Fire Ecologist, Dr. Monica Rother, has been trained in dendrochronology by one of the world’s foremost experts in the field (Dr. Henry Grissino-Mayer, University of Tennessee, Knoxville).

Jean Huffman at the Wade Tract by the kind of fire-scarred tree that can record multiple fires. Initial efforts will focus on completing Dr. Huffman’s work on samples taken from the St. Joseph Peninsula State Buffer Preserve. Some samples record fires in the 1600s with a more complete chronology in the 1700s onward. The process will involve moving the samples (cross sections or whole stumps) to Tall Timbers, cutting and sanding cross-sections as needed to scan high resolution images, creating a “chronology” by matching rings of given years among samples with help from specialized software, and then applying a great deal of skill and training to interpret fire scars and reconstruct fire regimes.

This work comes at a critical time in history, when we are rapidly losing the very old stumps that record fire regimes into past centuries. The loss has been driven in part by the practice of “stumping,” or removing the stumps of trees after they are cut to make mulch and remove obstacles to vehicles. Also, they are burned up by prescribed fire and wildfire if not recognized and protected or sampled in time. With this new effort, Tall Timbers is seizing the fading opportunity to peer into the distant past at the fires that have brought us the amazing ecosystems we enjoy today.


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