High school students change the way scientists view weather

By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer

dry leaf
Leaves hold the secrets to understanding weather.

High school students are making waves in the world of weather. Studying the climate – the way weather behaves over a long period of time – has been a very hot topic, no pun intended.

Working with their University of Arizona grad student instructor, a team of high school students performed experiments on the shrinkage – how much something shrinks – of leaves, especially when they dry. Figuring out how and why leaves crinkle up and dry in response to weather holds the answers to figuring out bigger questions.

How do scientists figure out the history of a place, say, 100 years ago? It’s not like 100-year old leaves are just blowing across the street with the rest. Well, they find leaf fossils. It’s like dinosaur fossils, only instead of old bones its old leaves.

When a lot of larger fossilized leaves are found in an area, scientists know that it takes warmer climates with friendly weather to create a place where leaves can get big. When they find smaller fossilized leaves, they figure it must have been colder in that area.

Unfortunately, old fossilized leaves aren’t perfect examples of how they actually were when they used to be alive. They shrink as they get dry, but a lot of scientists don’t think that’s a big deal when they’re figuring out the climate of an area. However, more than 100 high school students in Arizona have a different opinion. An opinion, it turns out, has enough solid evidence to be published in the official American Journal of Botany. Botany is the study of plants, and 40 of the students completed enough requirements in the study to qualify as co-authors with the grad student. Their experiments included drying leaves at 140 degrees in temperature to make them fossilize fast, and they found that some of them can lose more than 40 percent of their original size, even up to 80 percent.

This big difference could totally change the way scientists have calculated climate change! So, never doubt what young minds can do when they put their noggins together and come up with creative projects.