Bold Students Earn Prestigious EPA Fellowships to Tackle Big Environmental Questions

A tree-ring increment core is non-destructively sampled from a living Douglas-fir tree. Photo © Daniel Griffin
December 09, 2011

Some pursue knowledge for their own edification. Some research ideas to improve our quality of life. Then there are those who strive to accomplish nothing less than save the planet.

Henry Adams and Daniel Griffin, two doctoral candidates, are performing research designed to help humanity do just that.

Each has earned a highly competitive and prestigious STAR fellowship awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They are among 121 masters and doctoral students to be named STAR fellows,  bringing them into the ranks of some of the nation's top students in environmental studies.

The EPA will offer this year's class of fellows up to $37,000 annually for a three-year period to cover tuition and fees, a research allowance and stipend.

If trees die off, what happens to society?

Henry Adams has always been into trees and learning how they work. When you meet him, it’s easy to visualize the lumberjack he used to be, a big, bearded guy at home in some great forest. While therein lies his past, today you’re more likely to see him in his lab. There, he cultivates and studies miniature forests of ponderosa, piñon and juniper pine seedlings to learn how humans might save them in a warming planetary environment.

Chiefly concerned with tree physiology, Adams is working to determine the threshold at which water-starved trees can no longer repair themselves—an urgent mission when we consider the increasing speed of climate change.

"There is an understanding that if you know more about the physiology of the trees, then you can better predict die-off in the future," he says. Ultimately, Adams wants to connect all the dots to formulate a big-picture view of what the world will look like if trees continue to die off.

"People have asked me, 'What actions can be taken to prevent trees from dying from drought out on the landscape?' The answer I have given is "drive your car less", because there seems to be no action that looks promising to stop die-off from warmer temperatures and drought," Adams said.

His dissertation work incorporates three independent experiments: one at the UA’s prestigious Biosphere 2 facility that has since been completed; a field experiment currently being conducted in northern Arizona; and a controlled experiment in one of two labs where he works on the UA campus.

Learn more about the bold work going on at the UA’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, where Adams is doing his work.

What can trees tell us about the Southwest’s summer monsoons?

If you’ve never heard of dendochronology, it is—in short—the study of tree rings.  The UA is home to the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (LTRR), largest lab of its kind on the planet, founded by astronomer A. E. Douglass, who knew that he could learn about the cycles of sunspots through studying the “recordings” of climate patterns in tree rings.

That makes it the natural fit for the work of Daniel Griffin.

Griffin is a dendochronologist researching the southwestern region's summer monsoon history. His work is contributing to a broader research effort at the UA to create the first systematic network of monsoon-sensitive tree-ring records.

While researchers have long studied “earlywood,” the lighter tree rings that form in the spring, Griffin’s work is focused on "latewood," the darker rings that form during the summer monsoon months. 

"Latewood width provides a proxy record for past monsoon rainfall patterns," he says, adding that less forms during summers with a dry monsoon, while more latewood is produced during wet monsoons.

He and his colleagues have been collecting new tree-ring samples from mountain ranges across Arizona and New Mexico. 

In evaluating latewood, Griffin – who previously helped develop blue oak tree-ring chronologies in California – will attempt to explain monsoon variability in the Southwest over a 500-year period.

"Humans have also thrived in this region for thousands of years but, in recent decades, we have placed unreasonable demands on the natural environment," Griffin said. "As we start to think about more holistic and sustainable water resource management, we must consider all the elements." 

For every week over the next two years, Griffin will measure tree growth at two locations in the Santa Catalina Mountains to help advance what is known about how earlywood and latewood formation corresponds to the variability of moisture during the winter and monsoon seasons.

"It's amazing to me that I am able to do this research in Arizona, where people have studied tree rings and climate for 100 years," said Griffin. "It's perhaps serendipitous for me to be here and to be doing this work with my heroes."

Learn more about the UA’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, a resource informing the studies of ecology, climatology, archaeology, anthropology, geochemistry, public health and so much more.