Trees use Twitter to highlight global warming

A network of trees in Europe is using Twitter to tell the world about how they are being affected by global warming

An innovative COST Action is highlighting the effects of climate change on trees by getting the trees to use Twitter to tell the world about it.

Studying Tree Responses to extreme Events: a SynthesiS ’ – aka STReESS – is using the power of social media to show how changing weather patterns are affecting trees in Europe. Researchers have hooked up equipment allowing trees to release data including their growth and water transport via daily Twitter updates, to indicate how they are reacting to environmental stress. Hopes are high that the ‘twittering tree’ network can act as an early-warning system on the impact of extreme weather on trees.

It is an extension of the original goal of STReESS, as the Action’s Chair, Dr Ute-Sass-Klaassen of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, explains. “In 2008, I thought it made sense to bring together a larger group of researchers from different disciplines to look at how trees perceive environmental stress.

“We focused on integrating knowledge on the response of European tree species to changing climate conditions,” adds Dr Sass-Klaassen. “The ‘twittering tree’ represents the Action’s key message: ‘Trees are the key to understanding climate-growth relationships.’

“Trees are data loggers. They store information on the impact of environmental conditions, including extreme climate events, in their tree rings.”

Twelve trees in four locations in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are currently tweeting their status, but Dr Sass-Klaassen and her colleagues are looking to extend the project throughout Europe and maybe beyond. Monitors on and in the trees read the amount and speed of water transported through the stem and how much the tree is growing by measuring its stem extension. Wireless technology then feeds the data out to a Twitter account, which tweets when the tree is actively transporting water and how much it is growing every day.

The data can show how hot, dry weather affects the water flow in a tree, and how this alters its rate of growth. In addition to the tweets, real-time data is also presented in visual form at the Treewatch website.

“Trees are not static individuals,” adds Dr Sass-Klaassen, “Important processes are going on inside the tree that are only partly reflected by what is happening on the outside, like when leaves change colour before being shed in autumn. And most importantly, people can see that trees perceive extreme climate conditions like drought, and that they might be harmed by it.”  

The project has also helped plan for the future by training young researchers, forming networks and integrating scientists from different disciplines. Scientific networks are helping to provide knowledge for decision-making, while using Twitter brings science closer to the public.

Dr Sass-Klaassen is hoping the current network can expand and build upon the eye-catching work that has already taken place.

“A European twittering-tree network can be a powerful research tool when connected to already running monitoring networks,” she declares. “Our ambition is that we can integrate existing monitoring & research networks.”

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Last updated: 12 December 2017 top of page