Creationism and Tree Ring Chronology

ONCE MORE, dear reader, your Curmudgeon brings you the view from Answers in Genesis (AIG), one of the major sources of creationist wisdom. They’ve posted an article dealing with a problem they have concerning tree ring chronology. This subject has the fancy name of Dendrochronology. The Wikipedia article says:

[T]ree-ring dating is the method of scientific dating based on the analysis of tree-ring growth patterns.


For the entire period of a tree’s life, a year-by-year record or ring pattern is formed that reflects the climatic conditions in which the tree grew. … Trees from the same region will tend to develop the same patterns of ring widths for a given period. … Following these tree-ring patterns from living trees back through time, chronologies can be built up, both for entire regions, and for sub-regions of the world.


Fully anchored chronologies which extend back more than 10,000 years exist for river oak trees from South Germany (from the Main and Rhine rivers). Another fully anchored chronology which extends back 8500 years exists for the bristlecone pine in the Southwest US (White Mountains of California). Furthermore, the mutual consistency of these two independent dendrochronological sequences has been confirmed by comparing their radiocarbon and dendrochronological ages.

Putting this in our own words, consider two long-lived trees that each lived in the same area. The Bristlecone pine is ideal for this, because they can live to be 5,000 years old, and are among the oldest living organisms. Lets assume that each tree lived for 1,000 years, one after the other; but before the first tree died the second tree had begun its life. Assume further that there was an overlap period of 50 years during which they were both alive — the first tree being almost 1,000 years old when the second tree was young. But now both trees are dead.

A core can be taken from each tree, on which the rings will appear as stripes. The cores are then compared. If the last 50 rings of one tree can be matched up with an early set of 50 rings from another tree, then the cores of the two trees can be considered as one long core (with a slight overlap), providing a continuous tree-ring record of nearly 2,000 years.

As the Wikipedia article says, reliable chronologies have been established that go back several thousands of years. This is a problem for creationists, which brings us to the article at the website of Answers In Genesis: Biblical Chronology and the 8,000-Year-Long Bristlecone Pine Tree-Ring Chronology.

The author is John Woodmorappe, M.A. Geology, B.A. Biology. We aren’t told where those degrees were awarded, or when. Wikipedia has an entry for John Woodmorappe — can there be more than one? — which says:

John Woodmorappe (born October 1954) is the pen name of an author who has published several articles and books with the creation science groups Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. His main works are Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study and The Mythology of Modern Dating Methods. He has also written several articles in creationist journals.

Okay, now you know something about the topic of the article and the author. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

A literal understanding of the biblical chronologies places the Flood no earlier than about 2,500 B.C. and the creation no earlier than about 6,000 B.C. (Allowance for unlisted names in the biblical chronologies pushes back these dates, but not much). Yet the Bristlecone Pine (hereafter BCP) long chronology, comprised of hundreds of live and dead trees, is over 8,000 years long. The presence of fossiliferous sediment under the BCPs rules out any of them being pre-Flood. So, unless we choose to push the Flood back many thousands of years, effectively disregarding biblical chronologies, how can the conflicting chronologies be reconciled? I have studied this question for many years.

He lays out the problem fairly well. There are too many tree rings — far too many for the limited number of years since the Flood. The observable facts appear to contradict a literal interpretation of scripture. How does Woodmorappe handle it? In our experience, most creationists just ignore such problems and stick with scripture. But this author is different. First he discusses how tree-ring chronology works. He does that reasonably well. Then he tries one approach to resolving his dilemma:

The over 8,000 years of BCP [Bristlecone Pine] chronology presuppose that no more than one ring ever formed per year.

But he abandons that, admirably enough, because all the evidence is that those trees produce only one ring per year. Then he takes another shot:

Could the weather patterns right after the Flood, probably quite different from those of recent decades, have triggered flushes of multiple ring growth in the BCPs of the White Mountains, California — the ones that form the inferred 8,000 year chronology? This seems unlikely, as BCPs already grow in a variety of montane environments in the western U.S., yet none of them is known to have ever produced more than one ring per year.

So he gives up on that. Then he flirts with another idea:

Could the genetics of BCPs, nowadays so strongly resistant to multiple ring growth per year, have allowed for such growth in the early post-Flood period? It would not be easy to test this hypotheses, if only because BCP generation times are so long.

Wow! He abandons that because it can’t be tested. What kind of creationist is this? Then he says:

The challenge is not simply to reduce 8,000 years of rings to 4,000 years of actual time. … [T]here must have been over 5,000 BCP rings generated in under 1,000 years after the Flood, followed by the remaining 3,000 rings generated in the expected 3,000 years. This would have required 5 rings consistently per year for the first post-Diluvian millennium, which, on a sustained basis, is almost impossible.

Another dead end. But he tries again. And again. Then he presents an idea we have difficulty understanding — something about re-interpreting carbon-14 data. That’s the one approach for which he has hope. He concludes the article by saying:

The 8,000-year-long BCP chronology appears to be correctly crossmatched, and there is no evidence that bristlecone pines can put on more than one ring per year. The best approach for collapsing this chronology, one that takes into the account the evidence from C-14 dates, is one that factors the existence of migrating ring-disturbing events. Much more must be learned about this phenomenon before this hypothesis can be developed further.

What we find interesting about this article is that the author not only understands that tree-ring dating presents a genuine problem for the young-earth chronology, but he also pursues an evidence-based approach to solving the problem. And, most remarkably, he drops a line of inquiry when the evidence goes against him. In the end, Woodmorappe candidly acknowledges that he doesn’t have it all worked out yet. This attitude is most unusual to find in creationist literature. It may even be unique.

But how will Woodmorappe handle it if his carbon-14 hypothesis doesn’t work out? That should be the real test. For the moment, he has hopes. Woodmorappe seems like a decent fellow, and we wish him well.

See also: Tree Rings Are Proof of Noah’s Flood.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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17 responses to “Creationism and Tree Ring Chronology

  1. mightyfrijoles

    “The best approach for collapsing this chronology, one that takes into the account the evidence from C-14 dates, is one that factors the existence of [b]migrating ring-disturbing[/b] events.”

    Did he say what a “migrating ring-disturbing event” was? Sounds like straw grasping to me.

    Then, there’s always God, who can do anything.

  2. retiredsciguy

    “The author is John Woodmorappe, M.A. Geology, B.A. Biology. ”

    Doesn’t it seem odd that a person would be granted a Master of Arts degree in geology, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology? Since these are both branches of science, shouldn’t these be MS and BS degrees? And since he is writing under an assumed name, did he also study under an assumed name? I mean, what’s up with a research scientist publishing under an assumed name? Something’s fishy here.

    I have to agree with Mightyfrijoles above. “Migrating ring-disturbing events”???
    When you have no answer, invent one. Let’s apply Occam’s Razor here. The simplest explanation is almost always the correct explanation. The fact that the creationists can’t see this is evidence they have been blinded by their faith. (To borrow a phrase.)

  3. retiredsciguy: if you attend a liberal arts college, even within a larger research university system, science degrees are often B.A.’s or M.A.’s My undergrad biochem degree is a B.A., for example.

    On a different note, there are actually creationists who exhibit integrity from time to time. Take the case of Todd Wood, who published a paper in Ken Ham’s Answers Research Journal standing up for Charles Darwin, of all people, refuting the claim that Darwin plagiarized Alfred Russell Wallace. Wood has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Virginia, and thus should know better than to be a creationist, but it’s nice to see that he’s not completely around the bend.

  4. retiredsciguy says: “When you have no answer, invent one. Let’s apply Occam’s Razor here. The simplest explanation is almost always the correct explanation.”

    Yes. It’s obvious that some tough old trees somehow survived the Flood. [Pause for applause.]

  5. What the frik is wrong with wordpress?? grrrrr…:mad:

  6. Stacy, it’s all gorked up. I guess they’re working on it.

  7. Oh well – At least I didn’t put too much effort into mai post today. Hardly any at all, really. :-)

  8. I just read an article that suggests that more than one tree ring could form in a year. This article was from Ithaca, NY. It shows that trees from warmer climates have a greater carbon growth than those from cooler climates. This article also had me consider that areas of the earth sometimes have more than one growing season depending on the climate. Areas that tend to have growing seasons like this would most likely be found in the colder climates of mountains. Why because a freeze would stop a growing season for a limited period of time. Certain wood grows quickly in warm weather and doesn’t grow until the weather warms again. In the area of the world I am in sometimes winter starts by Oct. but there may be spring two or three times a year. I have experienced trees growing leaves in the middle of January with the death of the leaves one to two weeks later. I have seen the trees produce maple syrup as early as Feb. with a short season that either starts again in Apr. or May or continues through spring.

  9. Gabriel Hanna

    I just read an article that suggests that more than one tree ring could form in a year.

    Wouldn’t matter; the decay of potsassium into argon and the decay of uranium into lead establish that the Earth is billions of years old.

    There’s no ONE piece of evidence, you see.

  10. Good article, and I’m glad to know there’s at least one sensible-sounding creationist…

  11. I believe the earth is millions of years old, but I believe the creation of the earth and the species upon it took more time than the general creation populace. Science is based upon rules that people have not fully uncovered. A rule is set by a ruler. I think the rules of science of creation were created by God. The earth as a planet is very old. Humans have a history on earth that is a little over 6,000 years old. The short life span we have leads us to minimize the wonders of true creation. Being firmly convinced that God took time to create is the only thing that makes sense. Science can help us understand God, and common sense will help keep us from being senseless when discussing the proof we can find.

  12. rhapsodie, thanks for visiting, and for offering your theological speculation that “a rule is set by a ruler.” Unfortunately, yours is the kind of comment we discourage here. It’s a sweet soliloquy, but it appears to be based entirely on your feelings, and therefore it’s totally unscientific. While not at all offensive, your feelings don’t contribute to the purpose of this blog. But please feel free to comment again, if you can contribute to our discussions.

  13. @rhapsodie, strange comment to add to an year old blog entry on tree rings. Just driving by and couldn’t resist?

    “A rule is set by a ruler.”? Depends on what unit of measurement you’re using.

  14. I am not trying to be philosophical, but showing that science is based by proving theories of individual’s even though the proof should give us the theories.
    Tree rings are a history of the land of which they grew. considering accounts of growth rates of different regions of the earth can confuse a person. But the growths done of a single area will give more facts of a time period. Ireland’s tree ring growth promotes the time of the earth back to before the flood.
    Science has proof that the earth is billions of years old, ” Wouldn’t matter; the decay of potsassium into argon and the decay of uranium into lead establish that the Earth is billions of years old.”
    Why is the lack of identified facts not proof that things have happened, as is found? So my comment is in agreement with Gabriel’s. Thanks!!

  15. Anyone understand that?

  16. Gabriel Hanna

    The problem with your logic, rhapsodie, is that God could have created humans and the earth five minutes ago; He just created our history and our memories so that we THINK we’re older than that.

    Your idea is just the same, but you’ve chosen 6000 years instead of five minutes, because you like it better, but your PROOF is no better than my “five minutes ago” theory.

  17. rhapsodie should have left well enough alone. “A rule is set by a ruler.” at least made some sort of sense that I could understand. “…proof should give us the theories.” As they say, that’s not even wrong.