Trees are nature’s record keepers. They document their lives through annual growth rings hidden behind their bark, and for those that know how to read this arboreal script, the rings tell a detailed story. They reveal insect infestations and disease, forest fires and droughts, and general climate conditions throughout the tree’s life.
If there are any trees left in the future, their rings will show how our species struggled to limit our carbon emissions and poisoned the Earth. Due to the timescales involved in climate change, its effects are difficult for humans to see on a day-to-day basis, but it will be clear enough in the annual record of the trees.
But what if there was a way to use the natural climate monitoring ability of trees to convey the urgency of climate change to ordinary people? This is the motivating idea behind Voice of Nature, an installation created by the Dutch environmental artist Thijs Biersteker.
Biersteker’s artwork is based on a single tree in Chengdu, a city of 14 million people in southwestern China. The tree is laden with sensors connected to its roots, leaves, and branches, which collect 1,600 data points. These sensors are monitoring environmental conditions such as CO2 level, temperature, moisture in the soil, and light level, which are fed to an algorithm to generate digital rings every second.
These rings can be used to document the tree’s health in real time, which makes the effects of climate change on nature more accessible to humans, Biersteker told me in an email. When the rings are far apart and closer to a perfect circle, this indicates that the tree is healthy and growing rapidly. However during days with heavy pollution, such as during a recent major traffic jam in Chengdu, the rings become distorted and crammed together.
The irony, as Biersteker pointed out, is that the ring projection becomes more beautiful as pollution levels rise.
While Biersteker didn’t downplay the importance of environmental research occurring right now, he said his project is less about producing new scientific insights than figuring out how to communicate climate data in a way that makes sense to non-researchers.
As an example of what this looks like in practice, Biersteker recalled how during the installation of the artwork, there was a prolonged period without any rain.
“We asked if someone could water the tree, but everyone was busy,” Biersteker said. “Once we connected our moist level sensor to the tree and showed the data indicating the tree was thirsty, there was someone with a waterhose within 15 minutes. I think that was a good demonstration of how we trust data more than our eyes these days.”