Learning to Love the Tropics

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Oct. 11, 2010 — I have never blogged before, nor do I read blogs with any regularity. Lori approached me about writing an Adventures in Climate Change blog, to convey to people what it is like to be a field research scientist in dendrochronology (tree ring research) in Southeast Asia. I told her that I may have to work hard to cut out all the profanity and references to drinking (often a necessity — the drinking, not the profanity), but she assured me that I could keep it real and honest. So what I hope to get across is that as glamorous as all of this may sound (okay, perhaps glamorous is a reach) there is often much drudgery that goes with the territory, boredom even, and more than my fair share of gastro (although after nearly 2 decades my guts have gotten pretty used to all that Asia can dish out).

three kings of chiang mai

Statue of the Three Kings of Chiang Mai, located in the city center

Lately, I have been getting bashed around on the backs of motorcycles to reach my field sites in Vietnam and Cambodia, before crashing through the forests trying to keep up to local colleagues who barely break a sweat, and chain smoke cigarettes while they wait for me to catch up. And I am no longer the young man I once was, nor as svelte for that matter, and I curse myself for not exercising as much as I used to. There are leeches, mosquitoes, stinging insects and plants that either cut you or make you itch (or both), and wild elephants and an assortment of other things that could kill a man (unexploded ordnance, for example), but for the most part we avoid all of these things. Furthermore, it is usually hot and sticky and, believe it or not, sometimes quite cold and miserable in the highlands. Often plans fall apart, change, or morph into something completely unexpected. Coups happen, as do floods, droughts and the fires they bring. The Boxing Day Tsunami, civil war in Sri Lanka and the closure of Bangkok’s airports all affected me in one way or another over the past several years. These events, all too frequent, can mean disaster or sublime serendipity, depending on one’s point of view. I try to always select the latter.

brendan buckley

Writing my first blog

I began my research in Southeast Asia in 1992, when, as a research assistant to Dr. Mike Barbetti at the University of Sydney’s N.W.G. Macintosh Centre for Quaternary Dating, we embarked on 6 weeks of sampling across central and northern Thailand. We cored more than 300 trees, looking for species that had clear annual rings that could be used for tree ring analysis (most of them did not). This was during a hot and wet September-October season, at the very peak of the annual monsoon. Mike had been cajoling the Lamont Tree Ring Lab (TRL) for more than a year to come to Thailand and Laos to check on the pine species there, but all of the PIs (Principal Investigators) were too overbooked to take him up on it. I was a research assistant at the time, about to begin my PhD studies at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia, so Mike hired me to set up a Tree Ring Lab at his Institute, and to go with him on the maiden voyage into Southeast Asian dendrochronology before I went off to Hobart.

Thinking back I am amazed that I would become predominantly a “tropical guy” for the majority of my career, since I hated the tropics with its heat and humidity, and I always had an affinity for the high mountains, the Arctic and places with cool to cold climates.  Tasmania’s cool, wet rainforests suited me just fine, and I spent the next 5 years working with the long-lived Huon pines from Tassie’s west coast. However, in 1995, during the midst of my PhD studies, I publishedDendrochronological Investigations in Thailand (Buckley et al., 1995 in the IAWA Journal), and it would become the impetus for a career’s worth of work as a tropical dendrochronologist.

brendan buckley

Madhya Pradesh India, meeting with Pilgrims visiting the crying statue of Shiva

So, why should we care about tree ring research in this part of the world, and how does looking into the past with tree rings shed any light on what goes on today? For one thing, when I started this research in the early 90s it was generally considered impossible to work with tropical tree rings. Aside from some research on Teak trees from Indonesia (interestingly first worked on by a Dutch scientist in the 1930s!) nobody had any success finding trees with rings that could becrossdated (a process where we assign the exact calendar dates to each and every ring of every tree we use), and used for analyzing past changes in climate. Furthermore, there were essentially no terrestrial proxy records of climate from the global tropics at that time, “proxy” referring to indirect sources such as tree rings, ice cores, speleothems or varved sediments.  At the same time, the global warming debate was moving into full swing and before long the now famous Mann et al. “Hockey Stick” paper would place this subject squarely in the spotlight.  In this lightning rod paper, the authors attempted to use the little available tropical information for their hemispheric reconstruction, rather than relying on just the high latitude tree ring records that comprised most of the available information on temperature.  Much of our motivation in working on tropical tree rings was to provide the same sort of spatial and temporal coverage for this important, but under represented part of the global story. It was, in essence, the last frontier of dendrochronology, and it remained so for a reason — the work was miserable and most thought it unlikely to succeed. What I hope to get across in this blog is the path taken to get us to where we now have long tropical tree ring records that provide meaningful information about past climate, and the role that my colleagues and I played in getting us to this point.

hockey stick graph

So here I am in Chiang Mai, my second home (my wife, Orawan is from here), where I will base for the next 4 months while I work on my current National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research project on the Greater Mekong Basin (Paleoclimate Shocks: Environmental Variability, Human Vulnerability, And Societal Adaptation During The Last Millennium In The Greater Mekong Basin). I stay here so long because I have found that this is the only way to get meaningful work done in this region. It simply is not viable to come for a few weeks each year, as the amount of follow-up to keeping good relationships cannot happen from afar, and often plans are altered so you need time to adapt. During this trip I will visit Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, each several times, and the Philippines and southern China’s Yunnan Province to visit with colleagues. Today I am packing for one week in Saigon, where I will hold meetings with two Masters students I am supervising at Nong Lam University (NLU), and give a lecture at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC).  I will then spend two days in the beautiful city of Dalat, to meet with the directorship of Bidoup Nui Ba National Park (BDNP). It is in this amazing place that we sampled the ancient conifers that gave us the longest tree ring reconstruction of climate yet from the tropics, the nearly 1,000 year old record from the cypress Fokienia hodginsii (see Buckley et al., 2010 inPNAS – Climate as a Contributing Factor in the Demise of Angkor, Cambodia).


It rains a lot at this time of year, and it rains heavily as I type this. It is also still hot. I arise before the sun to take advantage of the cooler air, and to walk to the market for food, and to watch the monks stride barefoot down the rain-soaked streets with their begging bowls in hand. It is truly a magical time in many ways, and I believe that many scientists who study the monsoon, and publish on its dynamics, may never have experienced the complexity and beauty of the monsoon rains up close and personally. Soon the rains will stop, and the cool season will come. It is at this point that my fieldwork will begin, because I still don’t like the heat and the humidity, and so I wait for the annual cool. However, as much as I still dislike these things, I have come to love the tropics as much, in particular the people who inhabit these unpredictable and dynamic places. And so it begins, my first effort at blogging. I hope to present an honest and interesting account of what it means to do the work that I do, and I hope that those who read it will share my fascination with this incredible part of the world.

2 comments to Learning to Love the Tropics

  • Nestor T. Baguinon

    Reading your blog on working in the tropics gives some vicariate feelings of getting stung again by hornets or chased by honey bees. I like the writing style but more especially the substance (tree rings to provide more information on the truth about our planet’s climate as it varies with time and in many places (now in the tropics!).

  • Brendan Buckley

    Hi Nest,
    It is funny to be reminded of your encounter with the stinging night wasps of Bidoup Nui Ba! Well, not so funny for you, I suppose, nor for Charlene. I am happy to know you appreciate the writing and the thoughts on dendrochronology. There is much we can still do, and I am glad you are helping me to do it.

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