February 8, 2014 The Ancient Ones: Great Basin Bristlecone Pines
Story ran on Malibu Times Blog May 10, 2013
The oldest trees on Earth having been growing since before the construction of the pyramids and the advent of the written word.
The 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 1.6 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 Nevadas and the third-highest peak at 14,246 feet above sea level. Being located just east of the Sierras 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 these harsh 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 that protects them from insects and deadly fungus. 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 does not occur in these forests because there is little wood on the floor to burn. They live for so long that the soil beneath erodes away—they outgrow their sites.
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.
Bristlecone pine trees and their rings are very sensitive to rainfall, and they accurately record past climates dating back, continuously, 8,700 years.
Scientists have found unprecedented Great Basin bristlecone pine tree ring growth since the mid-1950s, compared with the previous 3,500 years. This coincides with temperatures rising 3.6 degrees across the western mountains. Over the past three and a half millennia, none of the tree-ring growth matches what has occurred over the past five and a half decades.
Global warming is extremely dangerous for these ultimate mountaintop specialists of our planet, as they only know how to make haste slowly.
These extraordinary trees—“The Ancient Ones”—are facing an uncertain future, which contradicts their role as the gatekeepers to the Holy Grail: the secret to external life.
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 2014. All rights reserved.