The annual growth rings vary in thickness each year depending on environmental factors such as rainfall.
By matching ring-width patterns in a specimen of known age (starting with living specimens) to ring-width patterns in an older specimen, the proper placement of the older specimen is determined.
The White Mountains rise abruptly east of the Sierra Nevadas, reaching over 14,000 feet in elevation near the ancient Bristlecone pine forest.
They lie in the rain shadow of the Sierras, with an average annual rainfall of 10-13 inches.
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The following article is abstracted from The Biblical Chronologist Volume 5, Number 1. The science of constructing chronologies from tree rings is called dendrochronology. Modern trees are known to produce one growth ring per year. (The idea that ancient trees grew more than one ring per year will be discussed below.) Therefore, by coring a living tree and counting rings from the present backwards, it is possible to determine the year in which each ring grew. The bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California live to extremely old ages, some in excess of 4,000 years.
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Its purpose is to identify maximum ages that different species in different localities can attain such that exceptionally old age individuals may be recognized.
Ferguson then started sampling the dead wood found scattered on the southern slopes of the mountains and found that the loose dead wood did not match the existing ring patterns. The actual date may be adjusted for extremely wet years which occurred in the past, as shown by the numerous dry lakes in the desert regions of eastern California and Nevada.
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Through the study of annual growth rings of these trees, a fairly precise method of absolute dating has been obtained.
So far, this amazing record from the Bristlecone pines only applies to the southwestern portion of the United States and has become useful also to the field of archaeology where ancient roof beams have been more accurately dated using the tree-ring growth records.