Geospatial science student’s work gets to the core of climate influence

Manually coring trees can be difficult and challenging.

Just ask Mira Smith.

“It’s actually a good deal of physical work,” confessed the Radford University geospatial science major.

But it’s well worth the effort.

In the spring 2023 semester, Smith worked on research with Stockton Maxwell, a geospatial science professor and dendrochronologist, to study how climate affects tree growth.

The research duo used tree bores to manually drill into and core 20 red spruce trees near Mountain Lake, taking two cores from each tree. The core samples are small, about the size of a pencil, and “can be very delicate,” Smith noted, making it necessary to secure the samples onto a platform.


Mira Smith

From there, “we sanded the cores down so that we could see the rings clearly,” Smith explained, “and then we used a high-resolution scanner to get the digital images from the core.” This was performed inside Radford’s Tree Ring Research Lab, which contains modern dendrochronology equipment to assist student and faculty research, a hallmark at Radford University.

From there, “the bulk of the work,” Smith said, was identifying each individual tree ring.  

“We used a computer program that is designed for dendrochronological work; it allows us to select the rings, and then the program automatically stores the ring widths,” the senior said.

After Smith and Maxwell dated the cores, they pulled climate data from Oregon State University’s PRISM dataset from the period of interest and “we used a batch of programming to perform the analysis of comparing the climate data to the tree rings,” Smith explained.

The study focused on how minimum and maximum temperatures, as well as climate, affect red spruce growth.

“From our results, the most consistent response was that rising maximum temperatures were correlated with a decrease in tree growth, which clearly has implications for the environment as climate change and global warming continue to intensify,” Smith said. “Understanding climatic influence in the past will help predict tree responses in the future, which is valuable information for implementing effective conservation efforts.”

Smith was drawn to the research with Maxwell on a personal and “larger scientific level,” she said.

“I find ecological processes fascinating, and I love learning about environmental interactions; the interwoven nature of ecosystems is something that I will never tire of exploring,” explained Smith, who plans to pursue a career in geographic information science after she graduates from Radford in December 2024.

On a scientific level, “this work contributes to the broader research that details the threats that ecosystems are facing due to climate change,” she continued. “Dendrochronological records are one indicator of climate change, similar to ice cores, on a local level. Understanding how specific species respond to shifts in climate means that we are better prepared to implement effective preservation strategies.”

Research opportunities are one of the many perks for Smith and students like her, but the Christiansburg, Virginia, native initially chose to enroll at Radford “because I felt that I would be best served by a small school where I wouldn’t be overwhelmed, for example, by class sizes and where I would be able to build connections. I was very charmed by the campus when I first visited, and it is close enough for me to commute from home, so Radford ended up being the best option for me.”

Nov 13, 2023
Chad Osborne
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