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The secret life of ancient trees

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The models that predict rising temperatures are “very iffy” about precipitation patterns, says Edward Cook, director of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) Tree- Ring Laboratory. That puts a premium on figuring out how much it rains from year to year in Asia’s densely populated river deltas. Tree rings help scientists understand past climate variations.

Nam spent a week in the forest searching for big trees. Now he is guiding the group back to a promising site.

“A tree that is beautiful to me is probably ugly to most people, says Buckley. “Mine are twisted and have been through hell on a weathered ridge or dry slope. Those are the trees I’m interested in.”

Buckley is considered the foremost tree-ring scientist (dendrochronologist) working in Southeast Asia and is a research scientist at LDEO’s Tree-Ring Laboratory. Nam consults his map, a global positioning system, and a compass, and relies on an intuitive sense of direction developed through years in the forest.

Close on Nam’s heels, Buckley twists his lanky body to avoid low-hanging limbs. Tucked safely inside his pack are two hollow corers used to extract narrow dowels of wood showing a tree’s growth rings. The air is heavy with humidity, and the climb is unrelenting.

Then Nam breaks through a clump of brush and stops, looks to his left, and says simply, “Fokienia.”

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