Cavitation is the sound of water breaking.
While we don’t normally think of water being able to “break”, the columns of water that move upward through a tree’s veins can be broken, allowing air bubbles to form or simply severing a pathway for life-giving water.
Trees use a lot of water
The general rule of thumb for how much water a tree needs each week of summer is 10 gallons of water for every inch of trunk diameter, as measured at knee height. This means a large, mature tree, with a trunk diameter of 18”, will need 180 gallons of water every week at the peak of summer, on average. The flow of that water is critical to a tree’s health.
In healthy trees, water is absorbed through the roots and pulled upward through tubes called xylem. There are thousands of xylem in a mature tree. Picture the xylem as straws that run the vertical length of a tree. Water moves through xylem in a process called transpiration.
Transpiration refers to the way negative pressure is created within xylem as water evaporates from the surface of the leaves. This occurs because of surface tension, or the tendency of water molecules to stick together. When one water molecule leaves the plant through evaporation, lower water molecules are pulled upward.
Bubbles can be bad
Bubbles might be fun to play with, but bubbles in veins are bad. Just as air bubbles in an IV tube can kill you, so, too, can bubbles block the flow of life-giving water for a tree. Rapid transpiration can cause air bubbles to form in xylem. If too many air bubbles remain in place, it can kill a tree. Cavitation is much like an embolism for trees. Small, infrequent bubbles are not a serious problem. Large, fixed bubbles are deadly.
During periods of drought, the rate of evaporation on the surface of the leaves is so great that xylem can collapse and break, like a rope pulled too tautly. These breaks halt the flow of water completely, also killing a tree. Cavitation also occurs in response to thawing after water within a tree has frozen.
The sound of silence
If you could hear higher frequencies, it would sound similar to popcorn popping. In most cases, the frequency of this sound is too high for us to hear, but it can, occasionally, be heard. [It might be fun to try using a stethoscope on a tree…] I can only imagine that our peaceful summer walks in the woods sound more like a riot of trees screaming for water to our dogs…
Bottom line: make sure you irrigate your trees properly to keep them healthy, especially during summer.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!