USA: The Redwoods’ Last Stand – By Taylor Hill. Earth Day.

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The Redwoods’ Last Stand

The giant trees have endured for millennia, but rapidly rising temperatures and years-long drought are threatening their survival.

Apr 18, 2016

Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Bio

LOS GATOS, California—I’m dangling 180 feet off the ground in a harness, held by a single rope tied to a redwood tree named Joe. After a moment, I resume my ascent toward the canopy, a unique and largely unexplored ecosystem of mosses, lichen, and wildlife rarely glimpsed from the ground far below.

On a neighboring skyscraper-tall redwood, Cameron Williams, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is rappelling to the pinnacle of an 850-year-old giant dubbed Grandfather. Williams, who has been climbing redwoods since 1999, has studied the impact of a record drought on the trees and has spent the past decade examining and documenting the hundreds of tiny plants that thrive in their upper reaches.

I started the hour-long ascent with my legs brushing some of the thousands of tiny cones and needles that stretch toward the sunlight. About 80 feet up, silence enveloped me as the ground below became obscured. The brain plays tricks—most likely out of self-preservation—morphing the thick foliage below into a safety net. As I hoist myself into the tree’s crown, there’s an overwhelming feeling of safety. The wind is blowing, but Joe the tree seems too large to sway.

FULL COVERAGE:  Fight for the Forests

We’re not deep in some primeval forest but in a backyard near Los Gatos, an affluent Silicon Valley town nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and best known as the home of Netflix. For one week a year, the landowner allows Williams and recreational-tree-climbing specialist Tim Kovar to lead four-person expeditions up Grandfather’s 12-foot-wide trunk and into the redwood canopy. It’s a rare opportunity—most surviving old-growth groves are under state and national park management and off-limits to climbing.

Grandfather’s trunk bears scars from where hundred-year-old branches had been chopped off. A previous owner had wanted to take the ax to the tree and the entire grove, only abandoning the plan in the face of community outrage. Today, after 160 years of logging, there remain just 120,000 acres of old-growth redwoods of the forests that once covered more than 2 million acres of California, from Big Sur to the Oregon border. Most now survive in state and national parks like the nearby Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which protects 11,000 acres of trees.

Coastal redwoods and their even bigger and longer-lived inland cousins, the giant sequoias, are not just trees that inspire awe in the most nature-averse city dweller. The largest organisms on Earth, redwoods and sequoias absorb more planet-warming carbon dioxide than any other trees. As scientists have recently discovered, the giant trees continue to grow and sequester carbon even after a thousand years. Their branches and house-size canopies shelter a host of endangered animals, from the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet—a rare seabird—to the Pacific fisher and the Humboldt marten, two weasel-like critters.

Endangered redwood animals include the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, Pacific fisher, Humboldt marten, and Vaux’s swift. (Photos: Michael Sewell/Getty Images; USFS/Flickr; USFS Region 5/Flickr; Dani Kropivnik/wikipedia; Jamie Chavez/Flickr)Redwoods are built for survival. Their foot-plus-thick bark shields the trees from fatal fires, and a red-tinged chemical responsible for giving the trees their namesake color protects them against insects and fungus. They are the fastest-growing conifers in the world, reaching heights of 379 feet, with trunks 30 feet in diameter, leaving would-be competitors in the shade. Giant Sequoias grow on the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada and can live as long as 3,000 years. Coastal redwoods, which can live to be more than 2,000 years old, sprout along a 20-mile-wide, 470-mile-long ribbon on the continent’s edge, where ever-present fog supplies the trees with life-giving moisture and nutrients.

Now that fog is fast fading away. Rising temperatures brought on by global warming are resulting in more fog-free days on the coast, while record drought deprives both redwoods and sequoias of water. The rapidity of the change in their environment wrought by the burning of fossil fuels threatens to overwhelm the giant trees.

“The climate changes that redwoods have seen in the past, they were taking place over millennia,” says Todd Dawson, a redwood expert and a professor at UC Berkeley. “It would take a thousand years for temperatures to change over two degrees. Now it’s taking three years.”

If the biggest, most formidable trees on the planet can’t survive climate change, can any?

 

 

 

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