OSU research of ancient stumps should continue despite criticism

Ancient tree stumps emerged at Neskowin, providing OSU researchers with an opportunity to explore the history of climate changes in Oregon. (photo: Harold Zald)

Ancient tree stumps emerged at Neskowin, providing OSU researchers with an opportunity to explore the history of climate changes in Oregon. (photo: Harold Zald)

(Note: This commentary returns to the “front” page of LIFE@OSU online to give readers a chance to see a special television news report about the “Ghost Forest” at Neskowin. Click on the video link at the end of this article. — Editor)

The Oregon coastline at Neskowin is always an awesome sight. But when storms recently eroded portions of the beach, they revealed remnants of an ancient forest, its 2,000-year-old stumps rising from the sea.

Anyone could appreciate their ragged beauty, and they’ve been called “a tribe of dignitaries . . . from the ancient past.” But they are more than that. They also carry a story about their time, one that may reveal important scientific information about ancient climate as well as what caused their death, perhaps a major earthquake and subsidence (in this case, a major decrease in land elevation). At OSU, researchers and graduate students in the College of Forestry began a program to sample a few of 200 stumps — but it was criticized in both news and editorial articles, and temporarily halted.

Many scientists at OSU and the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the USDA Forest Service highly support this sampling project. They constitute some of the nation’s leading forestry, climate and ecological researchers. They wisely recognize – as did the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department when it originally approved the study – that tree rings from these ancient stumps could provide invaluable data to help understand not only past climate, but also verify our future climate models, and learn more about geologic events in Oregon coastal areas.

One researcher – a participant on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – has pointed out that these old trees lived in a climatic period before the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. The climate then may have been quite similar to ours now, but without the effects of the Industrial Revolution or elevated greenhouse gases. Such data may help answer important remaining questions about the veracity of human-induced global warming – the natural, year-to-year, and decade-to-decade climate variability, and the effects of ancient El Niños and Pacific Decadal Oscillations (a pattern of climate variability).

People and nations around the world are debating climate change, what is causing it, what the future may hold and what to do about it. These are absolutely not trivial issues. At stake is everything from our transportation system to our food supply, the survival of species, jobs and our economy. As scientists we must help answer the remaining questions about climate change, sooner rather than later, and we need to get the answers right.

Ancient -- 2,000 years old -- tree stumps

Ancient -- 2,000 years old! -- tree stumps could provide valuable information for the debate on climate change. (photo: Harold Zald)

The researchers who used a chain saw to cut wedges from 3 out of 200 stumps – a total sample would have used 20-30 of the stumps — were using a standard approach that had been carefully considered. Conventional coring was not working because the stumps were too old and decomposing. Other approaches to obtain samples might be possible. But ultimately, this research is important and our understanding of complex climate issues can be no better than the data upon which it is based.

This is a rare opportunity to get important data. It may not last much longer. The same erosion that exposed these stumps to a level rarely if ever observed is now causing rapid decomposition. This will eventually destroy the stumps completely. For good reasons, this project and others like it should continue. The ancient stumps at Neskowin carry a message from the past, one that science can help us interpret to improve our understanding of climate change and our policies.

by Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State University

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