Geography students travel to Guatemala to collect tree-ring data in the wild

Since 2007, Associate Professor Matthew Taylor, left, has been taking University of Denver graduate and undergraduate students to Guatemala to study tree-ring data. Photo courtesy of Matthew Taylor

The things a tree can tell you can change the fate of a civilization.

That’s why since 2007, Associate Professor Matthew Taylor of the geography department has been taking University of Denver graduate and undergraduate students to Guatemala to study tree-ring data. The light and dark bands of wood, he says, provide information on rainfall and climate that can help identify weather patterns and predict future activity.

“What’s important to the people there primarily is water,” he says. “The population is growing, and they’re concerned about where they’re going to get water from in the future with increased demand and increased population, and also with projections of drying from computer models — all these facets make this research urgent.”

So Taylor and his students take to the highlands of Guatemala, searching out trees old enough to provide consistent and reliable data. Using a coring device, they bore deep into the tree to remove a thin sample of ring data. The oldest trees they’ve found so far are “only” 400 years old, so Taylor wants to go back to look for more — hopefully trees that date back beyond the 1500s and can help answer questions about the fate of the Mayan civilization.

A better understanding of just what happened to the Maya could help Guatemalans plan for the coming years, Taylor says.

“People say it was climate change; it was internal warfare — if we can get information from 700-year-old trees, we might be able to say there were huge droughts and that contributed toward the decline of the Maya,” he says.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Geography and Spatial Sciences Program, Taylor says his ultimate goal is to put together a system that takes information about the past and plugs it into models that predict the future.

Graduate geography student Becky Brice, who accompanied Taylor and Columbia University researcher Kevin Anchukaitis to Guatemala in March, says taking her first international research trip with such seasoned scholars gave her a definite advantage.

“I felt really lucky having been able to go with them because they did have such a deep understanding of that place,” she says. “Had I gone by myself, I probably wouldn’t have had such a positive experience.”

Even among students who aren’t geography or biology majors, the trips often ignite an interest in science, Taylor says.

“Sometimes when students sign up for a formal class with me, they don’t quite know what they’re getting into,” he says. “I like to leave a lot of my classes open-ended. I have certain outcomes that I expect, but every individual in that class comes away with a different outcome, and three years later I get a note from a student saying, ‘That experience emboldened me to be able to go forth and do other things like that on my own.’ For me, that’s the biggest reward.”



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