Climate and flow variation revealed in tree rings of riparian cottonwood, western North Dakota, USA
Abstract:In the western Great Plains, where old upland trees are scarce, rings of riparian trees provide an important opportunity for reconstructing past river flow and climate. We present data from 489 plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. monilifera) trees along the Little Missouri River in western North Dakota. The trees are in randomly selected flood-plain locations within the North and South units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The two sites are separated by 160 river km. The Little Missouri watershed contains foothills but no mountains, and most annual high flows result from snowmelt in March or April. Cores were collected and processed using standard dendrochronological methods. The effect of tree age was removed from the chronology using a single relation for the site as a whole (age-curve standardization), which preserves century-scale variation.
Trees were as old as 371 years. Given that cottonwood establishment depends upon channel migration, abundant establishment from 1864-1891 at both sites suggests that one or more large floods occurred prior to this period. At the North Unit, establishment continued at a lower rate during the next century, but upstream at the South Unit, tree establishment was greatly curtailed after the 1800s. Comparison of General Land Office Maps from 1907 to recent satellite imagery confirms that channel migration in the last century was much greater within the North Unit, a difference caused in part by a downstream increase in flood amplification by ice jamming. Ring widths show that even on the flood plain riparian trees were chronically drought stressed. At both sites growth was strongly positively correlated with flow and precipitation and weakly negatively correlated with temperature. Growth was most strongly correlated with flow and precipitation in April-July, which is consistent with dendrometer-band measurements showing growth cessation in August. Whereas cottonwood establishment decreased in the 1900s, ring widths indicated that annual growth increased, suggesting that a decrease in snowmelt peaks was contemporaneous with an increase in early summer precipitation. We are now using rings of riparian cottonwood to reconstruct past flows at several sites in the Upper Missouri Basin, including the Little Missouri, Yellowstone and Powder rivers.