University of Arizona dendrochronologists construct a 2,200 year chronology for the San Juan Mountains

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From Science Daily:

The second century A.D. saw an extended dry period of more than 100 years characterized by a multi-decade drought lasting nearly 50 years, says a new study from scientists at the University of Arizona.

UA geoscientists Cody Routson, Connie Woodhouse and Jonathan Overpeck conducted a study of the southern San Juan Mountains in south-central Colorado. The region serves as a primary drainage site for the Rio Grande and San Juan rivers.

“These mountains are very important for both the San Juan River and the Rio Grande River,” said Routson, a doctoral candidate in the environmental studies laboratory of the UA’s department of geosciences and the primary author of the study, which is upcoming in Geophysical Research Letters…

To sample the trees without damaging them, the dendrochronologists used a tool like a metal screw that bores a tiny hole in the trunk of the tree and allows them to extract a sample, called a core. “We take a piece of wood about the size and shape of a pencil from the tree,” explained Routson.

“We also sampled dead wood that was lying about the land. We took our samples back to the lab where we used a visual, graphic technique to match where the annual growth patterns of the living trees overlap with the patterns in the dead wood. Once we have the pattern matched we measure the rings and average these values to generate a site chronology.”

“In our chronology for the south San Juan mountains we created a record that extends back 2,200 years,” said Routson. “It was pretty profound that we were able to get back that far.”[…]

“What we can see from our record is that it was a period of basically 50 consecutive years of below-average growth,” said Routson. “And that’s within a much broader period that extends from around 124 A.D. to 210 A.D. — about a 100-year-long period of dry conditions.”

“We’re showing that there are multiple extreme drought events that happened during our past in this region,” said Routson. “These megadroughts lasted for decades, which is much longer than our current drought. And the climatic events behind these previous dry periods are really similar to what we’re experiencing today.”

The prolonged drought in the 12th century and the newly discovered event in the second century A.D. may both have been influenced by warmer-than-average Northern Hemisphere temperatures, Routson said: “The limited records indicate there may have been similar La Nina-like background conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which are known to influence modern drought, during the two periods.”

More coverage from the Associated Press via The Durango Herald. From the article:

The geoscientists said the San Juan River is a tributary for the Colorado River, meaning any climate changes that affect the San Juan drainage also likely would affect the Colorado River and its watershed.

Scientists say the prolonged drought in the 12th century and the newly discovered event in the second century may both have been influenced by warmer-than-average Northern Hemisphere temperatures. The researchers looked for indications of climate in the past in the growth rings of the oldest trees in the southern San Juan region to develop their chronology.

Click on the thumbnail graphic above and to the right for the current U.S. Drought Monitor graphic.

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