Fieldwork rocks: Tree rings of the Civil War

Many of us know that tree rings can tell us how old a tree is. But there’s so much more we can learn from these seemingly simple lines.

 In the mid 1800’s, right before the start of the U.S. Civil War, North America began to experience unusually low rainfall that lasted approximately 10 years. This drought, on par with the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, may have played a role in the near extinction of the American Bison due to the migration of people to areas that were lusher and more conducive to farming.

Max Torbenson, formerly a postdoc at The Ohio State University in their Civil Engineering Department, now a Research Associate at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, studied tree rings to learn about past environments and climates. While he admits that it’s difficult to attribute the effects of the drought to altering any specific part of the Civil Wars, reports do describe issues in supply chains due to rivers drying up and shortages of water for troops and animals used for transportation.   

In the latest episode of AGU’s podcast Third Pod from the Sun, Max describes how the work he and others are doing can inform us about how climate change has been influencing wildlife and humans for hundreds of years. Listen as Max recounts his journey as a scientist, takes us to remote field locations full of danger, and fills us in on why he fell in love with U.S.  

This episode was produced Shane M Hanlon and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Jace Steiner.

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