New Director Putting Down Roots at UA Tree-Ring Lab

New Director Putting Down Roots at UA Tree-Ring Lab

By Robin TricolesUniversity Communications
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David Frank
David Frank
Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building
Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building
One of the lab's approximately 2,000,000 wood research specimens.
One of the lab's approximately 2,000,000 wood research specimens.

Last month, David Frank kicked off his appointment as the new director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. The lab was founded in 1937 by Andrew Ellicott Douglass, who created the modern science of dendrochronology, using tree rings to study the past environments and history.

A geologist by training, Frank served as the head of the paleoclimatology and dendroclimatology groups at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research and as a lecturer at the University of Bern and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He has been analyzing tree-ring data for 20 years with the aim of understanding the relationships between long-term environmental variation and tree growth.

Lo Que Pasa talked with Frank about his research, his vision for the lab, and why tree rings, especially their cells, are on his mind.

You've been at the lab for only a few weeks now, but what have you discovered so far?

Right now, I'm spending time learning about what's going on in the lab, what the researchers are working on, the new directions they're moving in and the challenges that they face. I'm also learning how the lab fits in with the bigger UA environment. I've had the opportunity to speak with a variety of people across the University, and that's something I love about the tree-ring lab. It's connected to so many other departments and fields. You can apply tree rings to so many different research fields like art history, archeology, climate science, ecology and carbon cycling.

Carbon cycling is a big part of your own research. Tell us more about it.

One of the things we've been working on lately is using tree rings to understand how carbon cycles in terrestrial ecosystems. Carbon is a primary element composing wood material, and tree rings are a record for how trees, forests and ecosystems store this carbon. This relates to both weather and climate influences on forest ecosystems. We see the influence of extreme weather conditions on tree growth, say from an extreme summer, but we also see long-term variations over decades, centuries and millennia, which is climate related. One of the large uncertainties in climate projections depends upon how the terrestrial biosphere will respond to changing environmental conditions. Tree rings are a valuable data source to help solve these questions.

What new areas of research are you hoping the lab's researchers explore in the coming years?

One of the promising directions I hope the lab moves toward is capitalizing on newer measurement technologies, which should open up new research avenues. Tree-ring science has been built on tree-ring width – that is, looking at the width of annual rings. But with newer and faster measuring technologies it's becoming increasingly feasible to extract additional information from tree rings and have well-replicated data sets across the globe. This includes measuring the stable and nonstable isotopes of the wood, or even measuring the individual cells, which are the basic building blocks of tree rings. 

Would you talk a bit more about the role cells play in dendrochronology?

This research line goes in the direction of monitoring and understanding how trees grow and what influences their growth on subannual time scales. For example, you can sample trees on a weekly basis and learn that on this particular week, the tree had this number of cells, and they were this size, and were in this stage of development, and so on. This sort of monitoring can be conducted over the course of a growing season and then years. We can then really see the growth rates and life span of the basic building blocks of trees, the wood cells, and understand their life history. Just like much can be learned about tree growth and past climate by looking at tree rings, looking at the wood cells takes this one step further.

How did you become interested in tree rings?

I was a geology major at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a professor of mine, a glacial geologist, was using tree-ring methods to date and reconstruct the glacial history in coastal Alaska. I was lucky to be involved in this project, and became fascinated with all the things that one can ask and answer with tree rings. What I find wonderful about tree rings is how they are connected to so many different research questions, and they can be appreciated by or useful to so many different people, whether it's a 5-year-old who comes into the lab or another researcher from a different department. That's why I'm very excited to be at the University of Arizona. I'm inspired by the many excellent faculty, staff and students who are here, and the University's highly collaborative, interdisciplinary environment.

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