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Faculty Spotlight: Why Trees Will Always Have Something to Teach Us

Brendan Buckley

A steadfast proponent of interdisciplinary research, Brendan Buckley has spent much of his career collaborating with historians, archaeologists, geochemists and atmospheric scientists in regions as diverse as the Asian tropics, the North American boreal forests, and Tasmania and New Zealand. The Lamont Research Professor and long-time member of the Tree Ring Lab at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) also pioneered dendroclimatic research that continues to contribute to our understanding of the changing climate.

When he’s not in the lab or traveling the world listening to the forests’ tales, Buckley is a fan favorite among his students. He can be found teaching and serving as the co-director of the Master of Science in Sustainability Science (SUSCI) program, offered by the School of Professional Studies in partnership with the Columbia Climate School. We recently caught up with him to learn more about how his course and SUSCI program’s curriculum are addressing and adapting to current events.

What course do you teach? 

I teach a class called Predicting the Effects of Climate Change on the Global Forest. We take a deep dive into current scientific literature on how forests are responding to a rapidly changing set of growing conditions, and how humanity can adapt to a world with potentially diminished ecosystems services provided by our forest biomes. We delve into climate science, forest ecology and plant ecophysiology. We read papers at the intersection of science and policy every week.

Everyone gets to lead discussions, which are some of the best learning opportunities for the class. It falls upon the students to help each other understand the papers, and they develop a very keen eye for interpreting results and asking tough questions about how science is ingested in the public discourse surrounding climate change.

I try to include at least two field trips, one to the Lamont Sanctuary Forest near the LDEO campus, and one to the Black Rock Forest about an hour further north. These trips give a flavor of real-world scientific measurements in a forest environment that relate to class objectives, and help build camaraderie among the students.

Sustainability is adapting rapidly, but trees don’t grow very fast. What current information are we getting from them?

In truth, some trees grow very fast, while others linger in the understory, barely growing for decades. Every tree species is different in how it grows and responds to its environment, and they each have their own story to tell. The onus is on us to figure out what those stories mean. We use a variety of tools to extract these tales, whether it be through interpreting annual growth rings (dendrochronology), or analyzing satellite-derived data like NDVI, or measuring gas-exchange parameters directly at the leaf level. Researchers are always developing new ways to obtain relevant information from trees, and we spend time each semester exploring these methods. 

How do you keep a topic that’s as old as trees relevant?

Trees and plants in general will always be relevant to us because we simply cannot survive without them. Our very existence is the result of photosynthesis creating a habitable world for us. There are countless ecosystem services provided to us by forest biomes, and it is the potential to alter these under a changing climate that keeps them relevant, and keeps us engaged in this class topic every year.

How does your work improve our understanding of the challenges posed by climate change?

My own work usually involves deciphering past climate variability from tree rings from regions of the world where very little information is found. Over the past couple of decades, I endeavored to provide paleoclimate information from the Asian tropics, a region that is home to millions of inhabitants that are dependent upon the reliability of the Asian Monsoon. We have discovered a great deal about how the climate has varied in the region, often to dramatic effect—epic droughts that contributed to the demise of the Khmer kingdom, for example. My work has also shown that the decadal expression of El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, has been active for most of the past millennium, and that we can use multiple parameters from tree rings for very robust reconstructions of streamflow across Monsoon Asia.

I am currently working on a proposal to study climate variability from West Africa, where there are virtually no records at present. Among the problems we will face is a climate that exceeds the variability of the past, rapidly, in ways that are hard to predict. Can our forests keep up in their current form? Or should we expect a degradation that leads to further societal issues, resulting from biodiversity loss, or habitat degradation? We are more dependent upon our forests than we sometimes realize.

Do you include content about more modern events? Like the Australian wildfires or the Canadian ones from this summer that turned our skies orange?

The first lecture of this semester looked at the Quebec fires specifically, and more broadly, the rampant increase in burning that has occurred globally over the past couple of decades. This is possibly one of the most significant news stories of our time, and we are just beginning to grasp its significance. For those of us on the East Coast, we got a good taste of what the western U.S. has been experiencing for a while now, and it is awful and destructive and constitutes a major health crisis. I have been witnessing this in Southeast Asia for years: the annual burning that is accompanied by crippling air pollution that puts millions of people in danger of cardiopulmonary distress.

Wasn’t this past summer the hottest on record globally? What will the trees show in 50 years?

This past summer was exceptionally hot for much of the world, even though it was cooler and wetter in the northeast as a result of the strong El Niño. What are the forests likely to show us? We already see a decline in black spruce, the foundation species of the boreal forest in North America, as the high latitudes get much warmer and drier and more fire prone. One of the first papers we read this semester addressed this exact topic. We see desertification taking place in many parts of the world as maximum temperature gets above the comfort zone for many tree species.

The truth is, we don’t really understand where this experiment will take us. It’s tempting to give in to our worst fears. I have a degree of faith that nature is resilient, and though we may not recognize the same species assemblages that we have grown used to, something will take its place. The real question is whether or not what replaces our familiar ecosystems can continue to provide us with what we require.

It’s officially fall! Everyone loves fall foliage, right? Has that been affected by climate change?

Well, qualitatively, I can tell you that fall colors are later than normal as we haven’t had a frost yet, and we are nearly in November. It seems to me that the peak of fall color comes later each year and is perhaps a bit less vibrant than what I remember from childhood. Quantitatively, I haven’t measured that directly so I can’t say whether this is reality or perception. We are, however, seeing species migration in and out of our region, so it should not come as a surprise that the annual fall spectacle has changed in accordance.

Why should students apply to the SUSCI program?

That’s easy! They should apply because we have a world-class program with truly unique faculty working in research on a variety of topics related to our planet. Add that to the fact that we are based in New York City and have resources like LDEO; there’s no other program in the country like this.

The Master of Science in Sustainability Science program, offered by the School of Professional Studies in partnership with the Climate School, is designed for current and aspiring leaders who wish to help organizations understand the technical aspects of sustainability, including predicting and addressing environmental impacts.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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