TREES Laboratory on the forefront of research

August 14, 2012
Dr. Evan Larson analyzes tree ring width patterns in search of earthworm influences on tree growth.


PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – With cutting-edge undergraduate research projects under their belts, like National Science Foundation-funded studies of the lake level history and sand dune activity in Door County and Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation grant-funded studies of the impact of invasive earthworm species in the Menominee Forest, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Geography Program is taking its Tree-Ring, Earth and Environmental Sciences Laboratory to the next level.

Known as the Geomorphology Laboratory beginning in 2005 and then the Earth Sciences Laboratory in 2009, the facility was officially renamed the TREES Laboratory this year to reflect the full-scope of research that is being done there and the range of services it offers.

Co-directing the laboratory are Dr. J. Elmo Rawling III, UW-Platteville associate professor of geology and geography, and Dr. Evan Larson, UW-Platteville assistant professor of geography. Having already generated nearly $1 million dollars in grant funding between them so far, both Rawling and Larson said the facility’s focus is on undergraduate research opportunities for students, and specifically, underrepresented minorities.

“Our overall goal is to conduct world-class, federally-funded research that provides many students opportunities for hands-on, high-impact, truly significant learning experiences,” said Larson. “We want students in the field doing research, collecting data and presenting at conferences, all while working in a collaborative setting.”

Sara Allen teaches her fellow project participants about the principle of cross-dating that is fundamental to dendrochronology.


Since 2005, the facility has employed 49 students. In total, those students have contributed to research that has been presented at 54 professional conferences in locations like Chicago, Seattle, New York and Washington, D.C., as well as in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

With its increased scope, the TREES Laboratory now offers undergraduate research and service experiences in geomorphology, the study of the evolution and configuration of landforms; dendroecology, a diverse field of sciences that uses the annual growth rings of trees to study past events and environments; and paleoenvironmental studies, which uses substances such as charcoal found in soils to infer past environmental conditions.

“The work itself has been very rewarding,” said Sara Allen, a senior UW-Platteville geography and history major and biology minor who has presented her work on undergraduate research projects done in the TREES Laboratory at national conferences in the United States and also abroad. “The people I have been privileged enough to meet and work with have also changed my perspective of the world and will help me to become a better scientist as I advance in my schooling.”

Larson said the TREES Laboratory is bustling this summer, with students like Allen working on a number of projects: an expansion of the Menominee Forest earthworm project into sites in northern Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest, the third year of Rawling’s Dune Undergraduate Geomorphology and Geochronology project to determine the lake level history of Lake Michigan, developing tree-ring chronologies from old-growth hemlock growing on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and from ancient white pines growing on the bluffs of Devil’s Lake State Park, and expanding on the research Larson conducted last year in Sweden as a Fulbright scholar to better understand the long-term effects of fragmentation on forest dynamics.

Additional projects just starting up include efforts to understand the history and fate of the iconic pasture oak trees that dot the rolling hills of the Driftless Area and a collaboration with researchers at The University of Arizona to improve interpretations of the growth rings of bristlecone pine that offer a record of precipitation in the Great Basin of the American Southwest that is over 8,000 years long.

A tree ring sample from an 80-year-old sugar maple growing in the Chequamegon National Forest is analyzed.


Larson said students are working hard to have their work ready for presentation at several conferences over the coming academic year, including those hosted by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, The Geological Society of America and The American Geophysical Union this fall.

Rawling and Larson are also working to gain funding that would help establish a collaborative research program among UW-Platteville, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Eau Claire, and Willamette University in Salem, Ore., to develop a multi-millennial reconstruction of climate variability and forest dynamics in the spectacular Wallowa Mountains of northeast Oregon, as well as a collaboration with the University of Minnesota to extend Larson’s research on fragmentation in Sweden to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, located between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.

“One of the best things about the TREES Laboratory is that it is giving us the facilities and capabilities to do some of these larger projects in the context of an institution focused on undergraduate education,” Larson said.

Larson added that, in celebration of the establishment of the TREES Laboratory, he has arranged a seminar series that will bring a number of nationally- and internationally-renowned scientists and researchers to campus this fall to speak on a variety of topics that are all related to the driving theme of research conducted in the TREES Laboratory, namely that the past is key to the future.

The series, entitled “Keys to the Past, Insights to the Future,” will begin on Wednesday, Sept. 12 with the education coordinator of the USA National Phenology Network giving a morning presentation to Larson’s Planet Earth class and an evening seminar that will be open to the public.

For more information, contact Larson at (608) 342-6139 or, and Rawling at (608) 342-1680 or

Contact: Dr. Evan Larson, assistant professor, UW-Platteville Geography Program, (608) 342-6139,; or Dr. J. Elmo Rawling III, associate professor, UW-Platteville Geography Program, (608) 342-1680,

Written by: Barbara Weinbrenner, communications specialist, UW-Platteville College of Liberal Arts and Education, (608) 342-6191,


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