State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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PhD. Ode to a Tree

“I was deeply saddened by the loss of one of our most beautiful trees on campus during the last storm. It had perfect symmetry and such a beautiful color display late in the fall,” wrote geochemist Martin Stute, after a highly unusual heavy October snow felled a 22-year-old Bradford pear at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he works. The tree had stood since 1989 in front of the Seismology/Marine Biology building–for many, a shady regular lunch spot, and stately natural contrast to the squat,

The tree. (Martin Stute, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

corrugated-metal architecture of the human structure behind it. Stute emailed Lamont colleagues his brief eulogy, with an attached picture of the tree in happier days. Dozens replied.

“Thank you — I too am mourning this tree –which kept me company for so many lunch breaks,” wrote Einat Lev, a seismologist, to Stute.

“It is true that these trees become part of our emotional landscape, and we grieve their loss,” mused climate modeler Mark Cane.

“I too have a special place for some trees,” wrote Pierre Biscaye, remembering a “beat-up old willow” that used to stand in back of the old geochemistry building where he worked, and praising the sweet gum that replaced it.

And on and on.

This being an institution housing hundreds of PhD. scientists, some expressed their love in other ways. O. Roger Anderson, a biologist who studies eukaryotic microbes, analyzed the perils of the tree’s growth and metabolism. He said that a 1997 photo showed that “the tree was only about as tall as the roof line of the building on the porch. I calculated that the porch roofline is 9 feet approx. above ground level (counting the no. of siding panels at 7 inches per panel.) So, the tree would have been close to 9 feet tall in 1997. According to your picture, the tree is about 3 x the height of the porch in 2008 = 27 feet! So between 1997 and 2008, (11 years) the tree grew approximately 20 feet. … I think that is evidence of the inherent potential for disaster for the tree. In general, the energy budget of a tree includes the expenditure of energy for metabolism and maintenance and the relative amount allocated to growth versus strengthening of the wood. If the tree allocates a substantial part of the energy budget to growth, then there is relatively less available to allocate to strengthening of the wood that is deposited. I believe that our beautiful tree achieved Herculean growth in height but at a cost to its eventual resilience. Nonetheless, while it lived, it had a glorious life!”

Coincidentally that same week, climate scientist Jason Smerdon wrote a blog post analyzing the activities of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation climate cycle over the Pacific Ocean, and its counterpart, the North Atlantic Oscillation. He blamed interactions between the two for causing the extraordinary winter snows during the previous two years. The post did not mention the tree, but held relevance for its survivors: “If it turns out that 2011-12 is another significantly negative NAO period, it would set the stage for three extreme winters in a row in the Eastern US.  We will have to wait and see, but last Saturday’s storm could be just the beginning,” he wrote.

When last contacted, Lamont scientists were discussing taking up a collection to buy another tree.

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