Tree Rings

A tree-ring clock can be used to date a piece of wood, say a beam in a Tudor house, with astonishing accuracy, literally to the nearest year. Here's how it works. First, as most people know, you can age a newly felled tree by counting rings in its trunk, assuming that the outermost ring represents the present. Rings represent differential growth in different seasons of the year - winter or summer, dry season or wet season - and they are especially pronounced at high latitudes, where there is a strong difference between seasons. Fortunately, you don't actually have to cut the tree down in order to age it. You can peek at its rings without killing it, by boring into the middle of a tree and extracting a core sample. But just counting rings doesn't tell you in which century your house beam was alive, or your Viking longship's mast. If you want to pin down the date of old, long-dead wood you need to be more subtle. Don't just count rings, look at the pattern of thick and thin rings.

Just as the existence of rings signifies seasonal cycles of rich and poor growth, so some years are better than others, because the weather varies from year to year: there are droughts that retard growth, and bumper years that accelerate it; there are cold years and hot years, even years of freak El NiƱos or Krakatoa-type catastrophes. Good years, from the tree's point of view, produce wider rings than bad years. And the pattern of wide and narrow rings in any one region, caused by a particular trademark sequence of good years and bad years, is sufficiently characteristic - a fingerprint that labels the exact years in which the rings were laid down - to be recognizable from tree to tree.

Dendrochronologists measure rings on recent trees, where the exact date of every ring is known by counting backwards from the year in which the tree is known to have been felled. From these measurements, they construct a reference collection of ring patterns, to which you can compare the ring patterns of an archaeological sample of wood whose date you want to know. So you might get the report: 'This Tudor beam contains a signature sequence of rings that matches a sequence from the reference collection, which is known to have been laid down in the years 1541 to 1547. The house was therefore built after ad 1547.'

All very well, but not many of today's trees were alive in Tudor times, let alone in the stone age or beyond. There are some trees - bristlecone pines, some giant redwoods - that live for millennia, but most trees used for timber are felled when they are younger than a century or so. How, then, do we build up the reference collection of rings for more ancient times? For times so distant that not even the oldest surviving bristlecone pine goes back that far? I think you've already guessed the answer. Overlaps. A strong rope may be 100 yards long, yet no single fibre within it reaches more than a fraction of that total. To use the overlap principle in dendrochronology, you take the reference fingerprint patterns whose date is known from modern trees. Then you identify a fingerprint from the old rings of modern trees and seek the same fingerprint from the younger rings of long-dead trees. Then you look at the fingerprints from the older rings of those same long-dead trees, and look for the same pattern in the younger rings of even older trees. And so on. You can daisychain your way back, theoretically for millions of years using petrified forests, although in practice dendrochronology is only used on archaeological timescales over some thousands of years. And the amazing thing about dendrochronology is that, theoretically at least, you can be accurate to the nearest year, even in a petrified forest 100 million years old. You could literally say that this ring in a Jurassic fossil tree was laid down exactly 257 years later than this other ring in another Jurassic tree! If only there were enough petrified forests to daisychain your way back continuously from the present, you could say that this tree is not just of late Jurassic age: it was alive in exactly 151,432,657 bc! Unfortunately, we don't have an unbroken chain, and dendrochronology in practice takes us back only about 11,500 years. It is nevertheless a tantalizing thought that, if only we could find enough petrified forests, we could date to the nearest year over a timespan of hundreds of millions of years.

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