Dendrochronological investigation of Shortleaf pine

Pine growing up in understory after fire.
Pine-oak forests depend on fire to regenerate and clear undergrowth.

NPS photo.

2. Dendrochronological investigation of Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata Mill.) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Lisa LaForest, Jessica Slayton, and Henri Grissino-Mayer, 2005–2006.

What scientific questions did they ask? What is the chronology (timeline) of climate history in the western part of the park? To find out, researchers examined an area of old-growth Shortleaf pines along the Gold Mine Trail. This followed the study above, which prompted researchers such as Christine Biermann, a Masters student, to study Shortleaf pine trees.

What did they find? Scientists found very clear tree rings back to the 1720s. In fact, this was one of the oldest intact stands of short-leaf pines in the Smokies—it was never logged or cleared for agriculture. In the past few years, however, over 90 percent of the trees died from southern pine beetle damage. Despite the recent damage, the discovery of a very old stand of trees was important: it allowed scientists to see what they call a “cross-correlated chronology,” or many trees’ growth rings that could verify events such as floods, fires, or other damage that happened centuries ago. Using 50 fire-scarred tree core samples, they pieced together a fire history back to the early 1800s.

Their work sets the foundations for future work to describe the fire history for this site and others in the park, so that a natural fire regime can be re-established. The accumulation of dead trees means that a large, hot fire is more likely here in the future, so it’s important to use controlled and planned fires to reduce the risk. Frequent, small fires happened often—every 5 to 7 years or so—during the 1800s, and could have been caused by lightning strikes or humans. Most of these fires in the last centuries occurred in early spring or late fall.

If you haven't already, read about fire research in project 1, project 3, project 4, or project 5. Or return to the list of all fire research projects in the Partner Profile.

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Last updated: November 12, 2015

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