Evidence of floods on the Potomac River from anatomical abnormalities in the wood of flood-plain trees

Professional Paper 1296




Ash trees along the Potomac River flood plain near Washington, D.C., were studied to determine changes in wood anatomy related to flood damage, and anomalous growth was compared to flood records for April 15 to August 31, 1930-79. Collectively, anatomical evidence was detected for 33 of the 34 growing-season floods during the study period. Evidence of 12 floods prior to 1930 was also noted, including catastrophic ones in 1889 and 1924. Trees damaged after the transition from earlywood to latewood growth typically formed ' flood rings ' of enlarged vessels within the latewood zone. Trees damaged near the beginning of the growth year developed flood rings within, or contiguous with, the earlywood. Both patterns are assumed to have developed when flood-damaged trees produced a second crop of leaves. Trees damaged by high-magnitude floods developed well formed flood rings along the entire height and around the entire circumference of the stem. Small floods were generally associated wtih diffuse or discontinuous anomalies restricted to stem apices. Frequency of flood rings was positively related to flood magnitude, and time of flood generation during the tree-growth season was estimated from the radial position of anomalous growth relative to annual ring width. Reconstructing tree heights in a year of flood-ring formation gives a minimum stage estimate along local stream reaches. Some trees provided evidence of numerous floods. Those with the greatest number of flood rings grew on frequently flooded surfaces subject to flood-flow velocities of at least 1 m/s, and more typically greater than 2 m/s. Tree size, more than age, was related to flood-ring formation. Trees kept small by frequent flood damage had more flood rings than taller trees of comparable age. (USGS)

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USGS Numbered Series
Evidence of floods on the Potomac River from anatomical abnormalities in the wood of flood-plain trees
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Professional Paper
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U.S. G.P.O.,
42 p.