The Dendrochronology Research Lab focuses on using tree rings to study past climate. The “DRL team” are particularly focused on the reconstruction of extreme climate events such as drought and flooding. The purpose of the research is to compare the data stored in trees centuries of years old to the limited weather and climate data that people have recorded over the past 100 to 150 years.

The Director

Dr. Matthew Therrell is a professor of geography at the University of Alabama. His interest in dendrochronology stems from his background in history. He says he loves to use tree-ring records to help understand how climate variability affected people and society in the past.

One of the first projects that got him interested in climate and history involved analyzing tree rings to determine whether the settlers of the Jamestown Colony were really as unprepared and inept as historians had previously suggested, or if there was something larger at play. After analyzing the tree rings of the area in Virginia, his colleagues and he found out that the settlers arrived in Virginia during one of the worst droughts in 700 years.

“It’s like history detectives kind of stuff,” Dr. Therrell says. “That’s the part I like: Using trees to solve mysteries.”

Dr. Therrell grew up in Fairhope, Alabama, left high school early to attend the liberal arts school, Huntingdon College, in Montgomery, Alabama before discovering his passion for dendrochronology. He says it’s probably his liberal arts background that leads him to focus on historical comparison with tree ring data. He got his PhD at the University of Arkansas and did postdoctoratoral work at the University of Virginia.

He loves to run and is an avid gardener. He’s keen on giving students the opportunity to get involved according to their interests and wants to help students achieve their goals.

Who can get involved?

Dr. Therrell welcomes any student, undergraduate or graduate, who has an interest in trees, climate or historical archeology.

“You’d be impressed by how much you can do with tree rings,” Dr. Therrell says.

Usually his students major in geography, environmental science or even civil engineering. This is the only dendrochronology lab on campus.

Therrell usually has four to five students working in the lab but has no limit. He doesn’t have a restriction based on a student’s year in college as long as they are enthusiastic and hard-working.

What tasks are students responsible for?

Students can get involved with any aspect of the lab projects from field work around the country and beyond to more mundane (though satisfying) work like sanding the wood, to lab work like data analysis. Dr. Therrell is big into goal-setting and keeping track of students’ progress with those goals. Each student’s involvement will vary according to their tastes.

Many students start their own projects and some have even published peer-reviewed research papers with Dr. Therrell. He says getting involved in his lab is a great stepping stone as research experience is key for success in graduate school.

The end goal

“The Holy Grail of all of this research is trying to figure out why climate changes and why climate extremes like droughts and flood happen when and where they do, which will hopefully help society plan for future events and change,” Dr. Therrell says. “It can have real practical significance for society.”

A lot of assumptions and ideas of climate come from when humans started recording weather and climate data, around 100 to 150 years ago. Trees can provide as much as 10,000 years of climate records, showing when there were droughts and wet periods as well as unusual events like flooding, fires or volcanic eruptions. Dr. Therrell says all the research is to try to give people a better idea of climate, what’s normal and what’s irregular. And, hopefully, one day it will provide a way to predict when events and droughts may happen again.

With the research students and Dr. Therrell have done, old growth forests were discovered and protected, humans’ historical records have been confirmed and even explained by tree rings, and current projects are starting to answer more questions.

If you’re interested in getting involved, email Dr. Therrell: therrell@ua.edu.
The Lab is housed in 1085 Beville.