World of Thermo… Story 21…Tree Ring Circus

Story 21                       Tree Ring Circus

“Don’t slow down,” urged Thermo to his cumulus cloud friends Puffy and Fluffy. “I know it’s hot and dry, but please try to hold out a little longer over the desert. We need to get these pine core specimens back to Dr. Cape before dark.”

“I’ll be all right,” Fluffy panted optimistically. But in truth, the dry air was not only shrinking her size, it was sapping her strength. Her brother Puffy wasn’t faring much better. Dr. Key had asked Thermo and his friends to haul tree core samples from the White Mountains in Arizona to the nearby laboratory of Dr. Julius Cape. It was proving to be an arduous task.

“Why does Dr. Cape need these, Thermo?” wheezed Puffy, who was increasingly short of breath.

“He’s a dendrochronologist.”

“A dendro-what?” Fluffy heaved. She was growing more winded too.

“A dendrochronologist,” explained Thermo, “is a scientist who studies tree rings in order to learn what the atmosphere was like in years past. Since our historical temperature records go back no more than 150 years, Dr. Key needs additional proof that our temperature trends are linked to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Dr. Cape’s analysis of the tree rings will help him with that.”

Both Fluffy and Puffy were too tired to ask a follow-up question at the moment, so Thermo went on. “It’s important for climatologists to know how the climate has been changing, not just for a few hundred years, but for thousands. So in addition to dendrochronology, there’s also glaciology. That’s where scientists study ice core samples from glaciers. Both glaciology and dendrochronology are part of the broader field of paleoclimatology.”

Puffy and Fluffy were becoming sorry they asked. But Puffy still had questions. “How old are these pine cores, Thermo?” he asked. “They look like they haven’t been part of a living tree for a long time.”

“Not since about eight thousand years ago, Puffy,” Thermo said matter-of-factly.

“Eight thousand years!” cried Fluffy, unbelieving. “I didn’t know we could find any trees, living or not, that had been around that long.”

“These samples are from bristlecone pine trees,” Thermo told his cloud friends. “Bristlecone pines grow slowly and live a long time. Even the specimens that have been dead awhile can give us information dating back thousands of years.”

“What kind of information, Thermo?” asked Puffy.

“Each ring in the tree core marks one year of the tree’s life. Scientists can look at those rings and get an idea of temperature and moisture conditions in that year, and pick up clues as to how climate has changed from the time that tree was alive to today.”

As Thermo finished his sentence, Fluffy suddenly perked up. “Oh, look down there! It’s a circus!”

Sure enough, only a few hundred feet below them, children and their parents were gathered around a big top tent watching an elephant balancing on three legs while holding a ball with its trunk. Nearby, a monkey was performing tricks for its trainer. All the while, a clown in a funny suit was making the children double over with laughter.

“Oh, what fun! Let’s go!” Fluffy called to Thermo and her brother. Suddenly she didn’t seem tired at all.

Puffy frowned. “That’s going to have to wait, sis,” he said. “I’m exhausted and so are you, though you may not want to admit it. Maybe we can come back after we drop off these tree core samples.”

“Aw!” Fluffy pouted, though she conceded that Puffy was probably right about being too tired. Besides, the dry air was continuing to erode her droplets.

Just before sunset, the trio arrived at the home of Dr. Julius Cape. Like many other climate scientists, Dr. Cape had moved his research deep into a cave, guarded by a thicket of carbon-dioxide-inhaling kudzu vines.

“These samples are perfect!” exclaimed Dr. Cape, examining the pine tree cores. “The tree rings are in tip-top shape and will be easy for me to read.”

“What do you think you’ll find, Doctor?” ventured Thermo.

“We already suspect that the southwestern United States was a lot drier a thousand years ago,” Dr. Cape explained. “These samples can confirm those findings.”

“Drier than now?” blurted Puffy. “How do you know?”

“From other historical evidence,” replied Dr. Cape. “Apparently the Southwest was the home to several civilizations of Native Americans before the arrival of the Spanish; unfortunately those civilizations did not survive.” Dr. Cape was concerned about history repeating itself. “I fear that future warming could lead to horrible droughts from California through most of the Rocky Mountains and into the western High Plains. The deserts we have now could grow much larger.”

“Heatia would be pleased with that,” reasoned Thermo. “No wonder the heat monster is in cahoots with Carbo. He’s playing right into Heatia’s hands.”

“I’m afraid you’re right, Thermo,” agreed Dr. Cape. “We are going to need to work a lot harder in educating our people if we’re going to put a stop to either of them.”

That night Thermo, Puffy and Fluffy got some much-needed rest from their laborious journey. The next morning, after a breakfast of jet fuel for Thermo and some ice crystals for Puffy and Fluffy, the three prepared to head west to meet up again with Dr. Key in Hawaii.

“Goodbye, Thermo,” waved Dr. Cape. “Goodbye, Puffy and Fluffy, and thank you very much for your help.”

“You’re welcome, Dr. Cape,” answered Fluffy. Then turning to Thermo she asked timidly. “Do you think we could make a short detour back to the circus? I really would like to see that clown.”

“Sure,” agreed Thermo, winking at Puffy. “I’m always up for a good laugh.”

The three friends headed out, looking forward to some rest and relaxation before their next assignment from Dr. Key. Thermo figured they would need it, knowing the tranquility they felt now could quickly change to distress and turmoil later. As he jetted off he thought, what if he and his allies could not defeat Carbo?


In the real world, dendrochronology (from Greek dendron “tree limb,” chronos “time,” and ology, “the study of”) is the scientific method of dating atmospheric conditions based on the analysis of tree rings, also known as growth rings. In many types of wood, dendrochronology can date the time at which tree rings were formed to the exact calendar year. By examining tree ring growth patterns, paleoclimatologists can determine temperature and growth patterns in the ancient past, helping to compare today’s temperature and atmospheric conditions over the Earth with what occurred over the past several thousand years.

Dendrochronology was developed during the first half of the 20th century originally by astronomer A. E. Douglass, the founder of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona (aka Dr. Cape in our fictitious story). Douglass sought to better understand cycles of sunspot activity, and reasoned that changes in solar activity would affect climate patterns on earth, which would subsequently be recorded by tree-ring growth patterns.

The text and artwork are copyright by Guy Walton. I would like to get this book published. Please drop me a note if you are willing to help.

My friend Alyssa Josue drew the art.

To see the rest of the World of Thermo stories click:

The Climate Guy

P.S. This is a picture of me doing my own dendrochronology project in the 10th grade way back in 1977. I got “the bug” to go into the field of meteorology and later climatology then.

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