August 23, 2013 The Ancient Great Basin Bristlecone Pines
The antiquitous sedimentary White Mountains of east central California are home to the world’s oldest living trees – the venerable Great Basin bristlecone pines. Some of these trees have witnessed more than 1.68 million sunrises.
It seems fitting that the oldest trees on Earth should be living on layers of rock that started as sand and mud or shells deposited on the bottom of a shallow, warm sea 600 million years ago.
The White Mountains are the second highest in California next to the Sierra Nevada’s and the third-highest peak at 14,246 feet above sea level. Being located just east of the Sierra’s means that the White Mountains are dry. Most of the scant precipitation falls as snow, the remainder comes as isolated thunderstorms. From November to April the climate is inhospitable with 100 mile per hour winds occurring frequently.
At two miles above sea level the ultraviolet radiation is extreme. July and August are the hottest months, with average temperatures rarely exceeding 50 degrees F. and precipitation is a meager 12 inches per year.
Yet despite harsh environmental conditions, Great Basin bristlecone pines not only stand upright but thrive where no other of their race of 80,000 species can exist.
These remarkable trees eek out an existence not for just hundreds of years, nor a thousand years, but almost 5,000 years. The oldest known tree on planet Earth lives here. He’s called Methuselah.
He’s older than the pyramids; he’s older than writing; he’s older than the first written story; in fact he was already old as the first pyramid was being constructed.
How are bristlecone pines able to live for so long? They epitomize the word thrifty. They grow for only 45 days a year and very slowly. They produce copious amounts of gooey pitch which protects them from insects. They continue growing for hundreds and possibly a thousand years even when 80 percent of their bark is removed – and they still produce viable seeds. Fire rarely occurs in these forests and there’s very little if any wood on the forest floor to burn. They live for so long that the soil beneath erodes away – they literally outgrow the very sites they live on.
Bristlecone pine trees and their rings are very sensitive to rainfall and they accurately record past climates dating back, continuously, 8,800 years.
As tree scientists learn the secrets of longevity these exquisite Great Basin bristlecone pines will surely enable humans the opportunity, should they choose, to live longer.
Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning broadcaster and distinguished conservation biologist. His latest book with Chris Maser is Life, The Wonder of it All
Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2013. All rights reserved.
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