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The Dry Garden: New 'Tree Rings' book puts climate change in terms young readers can understand

December 18, 2009 |  1:02 pm

"Rings" cover As the United Nations Climate Change Conference concludes in Copenhagen, what is a smart kid to make of the riots? That we’re all going to die -- Santa first? That in a few years down the road, discussion of climate is best had wearing a clown’s nose while taunting a Danish policeman?

Let’s hope not. Let’s dream instead that winter solstice on Monday marks brighter days ahead in which the next generation may be armed with the best knowledge of what climate change means and what can be done about it.

And, eh presto, an ideal volume is at hand. A newly released book aimed at young teens, “The Tree Rings’ Tale: Understanding our Changing Climate,” is the work of science writer John Fleck. Although there are other texts out there for children, what sets Fleck’s book apart for Californians is its emphasis on the West. It's particularly relevant to kids who experience nature in irrigated California gardens, taking them beyond the hose, the reservoirs and the aqueducts to explain the natural systems of the dry West that headlines tell us are under such dire threat.

Fleck is a native Southern Californian, an Upland boy, a former reporter for the Pasadena Star-News and since 1990 a science writer for the Albuquerque Journal. His book is published by the University of New Mexico Press “Worlds of Wonder” series.

Many texts about climate change begin with rapidly melting polar ice, but Fleck’s opens instead with the 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell and his navigation of the Colorado River. Ferociously wild in Powell’s time, the Colorado is tamed by dams and is the water source for seven Western states: Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California. We in Southern California rely on it so heavily that our farms and cities use more than one-third of the river’s allotted U.S. flow.

TreeRings Intermingling the history of the Colorado River with the emerging science behind climate change, Fleck connects the river’s diminishing volume to tree ring data, soil deposition in rock formations, ocean currents and even what kind of leaf pack rats stuffed in their little prehistoric middens. As he does so, it becomes clear how climate has changed and how further changes might affect us in the future.

The importance of a child-friendly alternative to the doomsday scenarios aimed at scaring Copenhagen policymakers into action is hard to overstate. Fleck is no screamer, but a modest and patient teacher intent upon introducing us to climate, then giving us tools to consider how best to understand the data behind purely terrifying predictions of drought and desiccation of the West. The child who has read Fleck’s book is less likely to waste water and far more likely to become a scientist.

It should be admitted: Fleck’s on the prowl. He’s unashamedly out to mint young researchers, offering instruction on how to keep journals, how to collect data and analyze it. Who knew that you have to weigh (or melt) snow to produce a snowpack report?

In a chapter that is a personal favorite, Fleck takes readers behind the art of weather forecasting, then gives young readers what it takes to begin observing and analyzing the weather for themselves (a thermometer, notebook and curious mind).

To see how nimbly Fleck has achieved his task of taking scary predictions about the future and making them seem like interesting challenges, one need only tour rather hapless efforts from public agencies that include the hilariously named guides “Earthquakes for Kids” and “Epidemics for Kids.” In “The Tree Rings’ Tale,” Fleck has performed something of a magic trick. Climate is changing, the reader decides, so let’s deal with it.

That said, Fleck would probably counter that it’s not magic, it’s science, which for kids is 100 times more interesting.

Other science activities and resources for children include:

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable landscaping appears here weekly. She also writes on water issues at www.chanceofrain.com.

Photo: The rings of a tree trunk reflect how much water the plant got in any given year, providing climatologists with a vivid chronicle of dry and wet years.

Credits: University of New Mexico Press

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