3.2 Determining Tree Diameter

A tree showing large diameters at the base of a tree, swellings mid-height, and small diameters at the top of a tree.
Figure 3.2. A tree showing how diameters are not constant as one moves up a tree.

Trees do not grow like cylinders, but rather taper upward; a tree’s diameter gets smaller as one gets closer to the top of the tree. Trees also have butt swell, a thickening of the wood and bark at the base of the tree to support the tree’s mass (Figure 3.2). Butt swell can create a very large diameter on trees exposed to heavy wind, on steep slopes and in sparsely populated stands.  Thus, to obtain truly useful diameter data, the question becomes, “Where on the tree should I measure?”

To make tree diameter measurements meaningful and easy to perform, a standard location and protocol have been developed. Diameters are measured outside the bark at 4.5 feet above the ground on the uphill side of the tree (Figure 3.3). This location, called diameter at breast height or DBH, is above most butt swell and brush. It is also at a comfortable arm position for most people.

graphic showing 4.5 feet above the ground on the uphill side of a tree
Figure 3.3. The standard location for measuring tree diameter is at DBH, 4.5 feet above the ground on the uphill side of the tree. Source: [FS] 1990.

For most trees in the forest, measuring DBH is quite straightforward. However, there are plenty of irregular trees that require adaptations, as described in Figures 3.4 – 3.10.  (All illustrations from or adapted from [FS] 1990.)

graphic showing forking above and below dbh
Figure 3.4. On forked trees, measure as one tree if fork occurs at or above 4.5 feet (left). Measure as two trees if fork occurs below 4.5 feet (right).

 

graphic showing branches at dbh; measurement point is directly above them. Graphic on right shows an enlarged stump with a measuring point 1.5 feet above the swelling
Figure 3.5. Measure directly above a bulge or branch whorl (left). On trees with extensive butt swell, measure at least 1.5 feet above the butt swell (right).

 

graphics depicting condition described in caption
Figure 3.6. For a large burl or canker, measure above the deformity and adjust the diameter down slightly (left), or take two measures equidistant from DBH above and below the deformity, and use the average (right).

 

graphics depicting condition described in caption
Figure 3.7. On leaning trees, the tape is held perpendicular to the tree bole, and is measured on the uphill side of the tree if on a slope (left); on the short side of the lean if on flat ground (right).

 

graphic depicting condition described in caption
Figure 3.8. On trees with roots above ground, measure at 4.5 feet above the root crown.

 

graphics depicting condition described in caption
Figure 3.9. On trees that have grown together, count as two trees. Measure halfway around each, and double the measurement.

 

graphic depicting a tree with nearly half the diameter destroyed by injury; a second tree with a slight injury to the trunk
Figure 3.10.  If nearly half the tree diameter is missing because of injury, measure half the diameter and double the measurement (Method A at left). For minor injuries, estimate the extent of the missing tree as shown (Method B at right).

 

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3.2 Determining Tree Diameter by Joan DeYoung is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.