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CSUF Dendroclimatologist: What Tree Rings Can Tell Us About Heat Waves

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California’s climate has changed drastically over the past hundred years, and it will continue to change as the Earth gets warmer, resulting in higher temperatures and more severe heat waves. 

Cal State Fullerton associate professor of geography and the environment, Trevis Matheus, believes that the key to understanding how climate change will affect the future can be found inside trees. Matheus, who specializes in dendroclimatology, analyzes tree rings to learn how trees have responded to past periods of warming. 

This analysis allows researchers to predict how trees will react to unprecedented rises in temperatures, including the current heat wave, which has resulted in triple-digit temperatures and excessive heat warnings in California and across the United States. 

He said that trees, depending on their location, can tell scientists about everything from precipitation and temperature to past hurricanes and El Niño. This is important because there is only a little over 100 years of climate data available, which is not a lot in a climatological context. 

Matheus has studied various pine trees in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks as well as oak trees in the transverse range in the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests. He’s also studied pine and fir trees throughout New Mexico. 

His current research looks at native species of pines and oaks in the Sierra Nevada mountains and other local mountain ranges to determine which climate variables — such as temperature, precipitation, dew point and vapor pressure deficit — trees are most vulnerable to.

Matheus said: “Trees and other proxy records like sediment and ice cores help to put our modern changes into a historical context. These little windows in history help inform us about what we can expect the trends in moisture and precipitation to be like in the future.

“I like to tell my students it is difficult to know where we are going if we don’t know where we have been.”

Read more about Matheus and his research.