If only trees could talk… Well they can now. A thirty-something-year-old poplar tree on the campus of Wageningen University & Research is currently tweeting about how it deals with hot, dry days without enough water, and the conditions in which it grows best. The data is helping researchers to analyse the interaction between tree growth and extreme weather conditions.
Tweeting from the account @TreeWatchWUR, the tree sends messages about the amount of water flowing through its vessels and about how quickly it is growing. Water shortages during periods of drought cause stress to trees, slowing down their growth. The tweets are a gimmick designed to raise public awareness of the interaction between trees and their surroundings. The data thus gathered will be used to supplement knowledge of the physiological processes in trees in relation to weather conditions and the implications of future climate change.
Growth rings and wood structure
The ever-changing weather conditions are causing variations in growth activity in poplars. This is evident from the structure of the growth rings in the trees, the way that trees store information about weather conditions in their wood archives.
The information measured using the instruments on the twittering tree provides the key to understanding changes in the wood structure in the growth rings. As trees can become hundreds of years old, we are able to go back hundreds of years to study trees’ reactions to their environment. Comparing the growth of trees in different parts of Europe should provide information about the effect of various soil and climate conditions on the vitality of trees. This knowledge is important for determining which species of trees are able to withstand the periods of drought set to become more common in our changing climate.
The tree in Wageningen is the fifth twittering tree in Europe. An oak, a maple and a beech tree are tweeting in Belgium, and a Scots pine is tweeting in Germany. A larch in Switzerland and another Scots pine in Spain are waiting eagerly to get onto Twitter. The aim is to ensure that twittering trees can join existing networks conducting research into growth, nitrogen fixation and water transport in trees.
Several research groups from Wageningen University & Research are involved in this research, which operates under the European collaboration programme COST STReESS (Studying Tree Responses to extreme Events: a SynthesiS). The programme is led by Dr Ute Sass-Klaassen from Wageningen University & Research. The concept of the twittering tree was developed by Belgian researchers from Ghent University (Prof. Kathy Steppe, Jonas von der Crone) as part of the programme.