Growth rings found in core segments were cross-dated, or matched to previously established regional growth patterns representing known historic periods. That work was done in a laboratory months after coring took place in the field.
"It was surprising to find that we had a tree that old" in the study's random sampling of table mountain pines, Saladyga said. "Based on size and appearance, you can't really tell how old a tree is. One that may look old to you can turn out to be only 50 years old."
According to Eastern Oldlist, a database for long-lived trees in Eastern North America maintained by the Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research Inc. and the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the 271-year-old Pike Knob table mountain pine is 21 years older than the previous record-holder -- a resident of Avery County, N.C.
In addition to revealing the ages of trees, growth rings provide scientists with data on climate changes that occurred during a tree's lifetime. Since the U.S. government did not begin systematically recording climate data until the 1890s, ancient trees can shed new light on old climate trends.
By studying the growth rings of long-lived species like the eastern red cedars that occupy the dry, rocky soil of the Smoke Hole Canyon region, Hessl and her colleagues have been able to track drought data for the Potomac River watershed back to the 1200s and beyond.
While precipitation in the region has been trending upward during the past two centuries, despite occasional dry spells, droughts that lasted for decades could be traced in the growth rings of the older eastern red cedars cored for the Smoke Hole study. Most of that work took place on land where The Nature Conservancy held conservation easements.
Hessl said researchers found several eastern red cedars in the 800-year-old range, and were tipped to an even older dead cedar on nearby private property. That tree, according to the Eastern Oldlist, lived to be 940 years old, making it the oldest eastern red cedar in its database.
While late 19th and early 20th-century timbering eliminated all but a few remnants of West Virginia's old growth forest, "It's nice to know we didn't destroy it all," Bartgis said.
The oldest trees found in eastern North America, according to Eastern Oldlist, are a 1,653-year-old northern white cedar, found in Ontario, and a 1,622-year-old North Carolina bald cypress.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.