Arborists tear down trees to learn more about them.
It’s a treasure box, in the eyes of an arborist — a 40-acre outdoor research lab filled with surprises waiting to be discovered.
Visionaries at the Davey Tree Expert Co. in Kent, Ohio, planted hundreds of trees here about 60 years ago, 14 species in neat rows, some of them genetic clones of each other.
It’s pretty rare to find more than three or four people doing work here on any given day, but earlier this summer, 80 scientists, academics and environmentalists in yellow hardhats were invited to play in this forest. Some came from as far as Australia, Germany, Hong Kong and the Czech Republic for the rare opportunity to demolish trees in the hopes of learning how to preserve them.
Each participant had to submit a research idea and be accepted to the second Tree Biomechanics Symposium, where they could work out their theories, share ideas and add to the industry’s knowledge of why trees fail.
“They’re sharing labor and brainpower,” said Janet Bornancin, CEO of the Illinois-based Tree Fund, which co-sponsored the event with Davey Tree, International Society of Arboriculture and half a dozen other supporters.
On one end of the property, Anand Persad of Davey Tree explained his own work in understanding the unique dangers of taking down an ash tree that has been infected with the emerald ash borer. Experienced tree cutters have been injured when infected ash trees broke in unexpected ways.
Persad’s research showed the trees are splitting at the union of branches, a place that is usually among the tree’s strongest points, and doing so with just a third of the pressure it takes to break a typical tree. “Knowing this has changed how we take trees down,” Persad said.
Elsewhere on the lot, Ken James, who works for an environmental inspection company in Victoria, Australia, has attached a “tree motion sensor” he invented to the bottom of a red maple.
His expertise is in how wind affects the movement of trunks and branches. But the real value of this event is that his device can be placed next to a NASA-invented system for recording the tension and compression on the roots of the maple as it is pulled out of the ground.
The side-by-side comparison will give James a rare opportunity to check on the accuracy of his equipment. “I could never have done this anywhere else,” he said.
Behind him, other researchers are dropping different sizes of branches from 80 feet in the air onto a device that measures the force of the fall. The experiment is being funded by the Electric Power Research Institute, which wants to know how much abuse its power lines and other equipment can take from trees that come apart in a storm.
In spite of the destruction around him, Ward Peterson, Davey’s manager of urban resources, said the point of all research is to save trees.Research has helped experts identify trees capable of surviving storm trauma, where in the past those same trees would have been chopped down to prevent future failure.
Researchers have learned that trees that are battered a lot are stronger than trees that have never been tested or trees that have been staked to prevent them from moving. Not unlike the way human bone and muscle gets stronger if they are used, trees that move develop “reactive wood” that can keep them from breaking.