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Back to the Future: Using Dead Trees to Predict Future Climates

This article is from Issue Climate Change - Vol. 14 No. 1.

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The tree line is the edge of a habitat at which trees are capable of growing. In this study, the scientists wanted to examine dead trees that they found above the current tree line. The deadwood found above the current tree line indicated that the climate during the trees’ lifetime was different than it is now. The scientists were interested in learning about the climate that existed when these trees were alive. 

Welcome to the Climate Change edition

Note to Educators

Journal Lesson Plan

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Education Standards Correlations

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Additional Resources for this Article:
Meet the scientists that contributed to this article:

"Science Topics" covered in this article:
  • Earth Science
  • People and Science
  • Technology and Science

"Thinking About Science Themes" covered in this article:
Often, scientists have to understand the past to predict what might happen in the future. The scientists in this study examined trees that died during a volcanic explosion in 1350. How many years ago was that? The scientists wanted to discover what the climate was like during the trees’ lifetime. They wondered if knowing this would help them to make predictions about our future climate. Climate change is a topic that scientists are interested in understanding. Climate change refers to the change in Earth’s climate over time. One way to predict our future climate is to understand the patterns of past climates, including those long ago and those more recently. Think of one other situation where learning about the past can help us to predict the future.
Specific "Thinking About Science" Themes:
  • Scientific Topics
  • The Scientific Process

"Thinking About Environmental Themes" covered in this article:
Volcanoes are powerful forces of nature that can quickly change the way Earth looks. In this study, many trees were killed by an eruption from Glass Creek Vent in the Inyo Craters in California (figure 1). A vent is the opening of a volcano through which magma comes to the surface. After they were killed, the trees near the Glass Creek Vent were preserved by tephra that came from the explosion of the volcano. Tephra is the volcanic rock that is blasted into the air from the explosion (figures 2a and 2b). The amount of tephra can vary widely. Between 1 and 8 meters of tephra fell on the area that the scientists studied, burying the lower portions of the tree trunks. These well-preserved tree trunks helped the scientists learn a lot about this area’s past.
Specific "Thinking About the Environment" Themes:
  • Effect of natural disaster on living things

NSE Standards covered in this article:
  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry (A)
  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms (C)
  • Natural hazards (F)
  • Nature of science (G)
  • Populations and ecosystems (C)
  • Science and technology in society (F)
  • Science as a human endeavor (G)
  • Understandings about science and technology (E)
  • Understandings about scientific inquiry (A)