Bringing to Light the Quiet Life of Trees

November 13, 2019

Trees grow so incrementally, people might forget they’re growing right before their eyes.

Kevin Griffin and a dendrometer.
Photo Credit: Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute

Kevin Griffin ’85 doesn’t want people to forget. He’s devoted his entire career to studying trees, and now he’s using innovative technology to give the world a deeper look into their quiet lives.

For the past 22 years, Griffin has worked as a professor of earth and environmental science at Columbia University and a plant physiologist at the school’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. When he’s not teaching, he’s traveling the globe researching how the environment controls how trees grow, how trees turn sugar into energy, and how they absorb carbon from the air and convert it into the building blocks of their own structure.

Currently, Griffin is tracking the daily rhythms of trees with remote sensors: a point dendrometer on the tree’s bark, and a transmitter attached to the trunk. Using these tools, Griffin can detect how trees grow, expand, and breathe.

The point dendrometer, which looks like a small, black plug, monitors changes in the tree’s girth by as little as a few microns (one thousandth of a millimeter). Every 20 minutes, those changes are recorded by the transmitter and sent to Griffin.

Using this new technology, Griffin has gained critical knowledge about tree growth patterns that was previously undiscoverable. His contributions to the field have been so crucial that his works gained the attention of The New Yorker.

“You walk by a tree every day and it looks the same as it did yesterday, as it does tomorrow and the next day, and you hardly realize it’s alive,” Griffin told The New Yorker. “I have this pipe dream that people will appreciate trees as living, growing, changing, responding organisms instead of seeing them as static on the day-to-day time scale.”

Griffin didn’t invent the technology, but he’s among the first to use it for citizen science and public engagement. He aims to make the dendrometer equipment more affordable so that everyday people can easily track the growth of their own trees. His dream is that one day, the technology will be so accessible that it will increase the general public’s understanding of trees and, beyond that, encourage them to love and respect the environment on a deeper level.

For now, Griffin shares this research opportunity with his students at Columbia, as well as local high school students, and publicizes his findings through his online project, the Virtual Forest Initiative.