Earth News Journal 49: West Coast Tree Giant Troubles

“A world where a child can’t stare up in wonder at a giant cathedral-like crown is a very real possibility,” lamented Bill Laurance, an environmental scientist at James Cook University, Australia.

This is the threat America’s ancient trees face – the threat of eradication by climatic factors and, ultimately, extinction.

One of the novel species under such duress in the United States is the giant sequoia, a massive tree that can age between 2,000 and 3,000 years. This particular tree is found only in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, with merely 65 to 70 groves left on the western side of the mountain range. Although the sequoia is not currently under critical threat from drought, forest fires, or climate changes, experts agree that the tree was not designed with persistent dry weather in mind.

The seeds and saplings of the sequoia could potentially cripple under continual fires, expected to increase at higher elevations in the warming future, while the lack of water from California’s current drought could prevent the saplings from establishing a firm root system. “If there’s a long-term drought, within 25 years, we could see seedlings in trouble. In 50 years, the whole population could be in trouble,” Nathan Stephenson, an ecologist of the United States Geological Survey, stated.

Another ancient tree species currently suffering from climate changes is the California redwood; these colossal columns of reddish-maroon bark have seen a 30 percent decrease in the amount of days in which their groves are shrouded by fog – a significant loss to a tree that’s defined as a ‘fog-drinker,’ one that can absorb as much as 40 percent of their water intake in such surrounding fog.

Irrigation may be a possible solution for scientists investigating the longevity of these western tree giants, although the future of the Earth’s climate is still a gaping unknown. Science reported an unfortunate trend in 2012: “100- to 300-year-old trees were dying at high rates around the world, in part because of hotter and drier weather.”

Laurance, an author of the paper, said, “We are talking about the loss of the biggest living organisms on the planet, of organisms that play a key role in regulating and enriching our world.” Can these magnificent monsters of the tree-world reign throughout the pressing climate changes in the foreseeable future?

Reflection

Having never traveled to the American West Coast, I’ve yet to experience the marveling stature of these massive tree giants. Though these species are often resilient against natural forest fire threats and slight modifications in the climate, I fear that the climate changes of our warming world will be far too severe for these trees to adapt in time to a drier reality. Will these forests remain, or will scientists, ecologists, and conservationists have to redouble their efforts over the next few years to regain stable populations along the Sierra Nevada and Californian coast? All assertions as such are merely speculations, at this point, as the world is physically withholding breath at the thought of climate changes in the future. The severity, length, and breadth of these coming changes are merely conjectures – it won’t be until the driving forces of nature are before us will we witness the impact of our conservation actions. Too late, too little, too much? We can’t know for sure. This is the paradox of environmental studies – to study, to prepare, yet never know whether our actions are enough. We can only hope for a more sustainable realm for all of ecology. 

Robbins, Jim. “Tall, Ancient and Under Pressure.” The New York Times. N.p., 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.

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