Thursday, August 20, 2009

Olympic National Park

Isabel and Micah ascending the world's largest Sitka spruce.

The family and I are on vacation in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. We’ve spent the past three days at Lake Quinalt, which is on the southwest side of mountains and surrounded by temperate rainforest. A few things struck me while here. First, 15 feet of rain (the record annual precipitation) is a lot, but it can be hot and dry here. Second, it would have been wise to have bought a cooler and fast on smoothies for three days. There are few places to eat around here, especially since we are going back to Seattle to eat at places like Salumi and Pike Place Market.

The Quinalt River Valley has six record trees in it. The world’s largest western red cedar, Douglas fir, mountain hemlock, and Sitka spruce, are all in the one valley. The western red cedar is 19.5 feet across. It’s hollow in the middle and you can see daylight when you look up from within. I’m not sure where the phloem was, but there were green limbs up high. The Sitka spruce is 17 feet across and aside from being stuck between an RV park and a golf course, is impressive.

As we’ve hiked through the forests here, it has been interesting to think about how these trees have been accumulating environmental records for so long. Tree ring width and carbon and oxygen isotopes are the main records examined, but I’ve been thinking more about the nitrogen isotopes. From work I’ve done with Kendra in the past, every tree potentially has a record of nitrogen availability in its rings. The isotopic ratio of nitrogen stored in wood is largely set down initially and has been shown to track N availability. Only a small number of trees have had the N isotopes in wood measured and for the most part we are ignorant about how N availability has changed in these immense forests or others. It’s an important question since we don’t know how elevated CO2 has affected N availability or how frequently N availability might peak with disturbances, which has important implications for the ecology of these forests.

I am pretty sure we don’t have a 10 foot increment borer in the lab, but there are some long records here just waiting to be read.

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