In an isolated valley in southern Chile, a lone tree rises above the canopy of an ancient forest.
Green shoots sprout from the cracks in its thick dark trunks, huddled like the pipes of a great cathedral organ, and water flows along its lichen-streaked bark on the forest floor with bulbous knots in the wood.
“It was like a waterfall of green, a great presence in front of me,” recalls climate scientist Jonathan Barichivich, 41, of the first time he met the Great Abueloor “great-grandfather”, baby tree.
Barichivich grew up in the Alerce Costero National Park, 800km south of the capital, Santiago. It is home to hundreds of notices, Fitzroya cuppressoidesslow-growing conifers native to the cold and humid valleys of the southern Andes.
“I never thought about how old she is Great Abuelo it could be, “he said.” The records don’t really interest me. “However, Barichivich’s groundbreaking study has shown that the 30-meter giant may be the oldest living tree in the world.
In January 2020 he visited the Great Abuelo with his mentor and friend, the dendrochronologist Antonio Lara, to take a core from the trunk.
They were only able to reach 40% of the tree as its center is likely to be rotten, making a complete core unreachable. Yet that sample produced an approximately 2,400-year-old discovery.
Undaunted, Barichivich began to devise a model capable of estimating the Great Abuelo‘wise. By taking the known ages of other alarms in the forest and taking into account climate and natural variations, he calibrated a model that simulated a range of possible ages, yielding a staggering estimate of 5,484 years.
That would make it more than six centuries older than Methuselah, a bristlecone pine in eastern California recognized as the world’s oldest non-clonal tree, a plant that does not share a common root system. Some clonal trees live longer, such as Norway’s Old Tjikko, which is thought to be 9,558 years old.
Barichivich believes there is an 80% chance that the tree has lived for more than 5,000 years, but some colleagues have despised the results. They claim that the cores of complete and countable tree rings are the only true way to determine age.
The climate scientist hopes to publish his research early next year. He will continue to refine his model but chase away the “colonialism” present on the ground.
“Some colleagues are skeptical and fail to understand why we disclosed the discovery before formally publishing it,” he said. “But this is post-normal science. We have very little time to act, we cannot wait a year or two, it may already be too late ”.
Barichivich believes ancient trees can help experts understand how forests interact with climate.
“The Great Abuelo it’s not just old, it’s a time capsule with a message about the future, “he said.” We have a record of 5,000 years of life in this tree alone and we can see an ancient being’s response to the changes we’ve made to the planet. ” .
In January, Barichivich, who works at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental and Environmental Sciences in Paris, won an initial grant from the European Research Council of € 1.5 million which he describes as the “Holy Grail “for a scientist.
It embarked on a five-year project to assess the future ability of forests to capture carbon, hoping to add tree-ring data from thousands of sites around the world to climate simulations for the first time.
More than a third of the planet’s vegetated surface is covered in forests, which capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, but current models are only able to make estimates for 20 or 30 years into the future.
By adding data for xilogenesis, the formation of wood, Barichivich believes he can provide 100-year predictions for climate change and revolutionize our ability to understand and mitigate its effects.
“If tree rings are a book, everyone has just looked at the cover for 40 years,” he said.
“Gradually, the tree is dying”
In an office surrounded by painted samples, brittle cores and wood shavings, Barichivich’s mentor Antonio Lara, 66, has spent his career working to reconstruct temperature, rainfall, and watershed levels throughout history.
Lara, a professor in the Faculty of Forest Sciences and Natural Resources of the Austral University of Chile in the southern city of Valdivia, was able to show that alercees can absorb carbon from the atmosphere and trap it for between 1,500 and 2,000. years in standing dead trees. Buried trunks can contain carbon for more than 4,000 years.
It also pinpointed exact weather events by translating tree rings into numbers, which can then be read as a barcode. “Great-grandfather’s tree is a miracle for three reasons: it grew, it survived and then it was found by Jonathan’s grandfather,” Lara said.
In the mid-1940s, Barichivich’s grandfather, Aníbal Henríquez, came from the southern town of Lautaro to work for forest companies that felled the lahuanas the Alerce are known in the indigenous Mapudungun language, his native language.
He became the park’s first guardian, but many giant trees had already fallen victim to loggers before Chile made logging illegal in 1976.
The Alerce pebble was used as currency by local people throughout the 1700s and 1800s and wood was commonly used in construction. The famous wooden churches of the island of Chiloé, protected by UNESCO, are built with wooden logs.
Henriquez happened Great Abuelo during a patrol in the early 1970s. Although at first he was reluctant to reveal the discovery, word soon spread and people began to arrive: now, every summer, more than 10,000 tourists descend to the small wooden observation deck next to the tree.
Other warnings in the valley have been victims of lumberjacks or forest fires, leaving the gnarled tree standing alone. “Gradually, the tree is dying,” said Marcelo Delgado, Barichivich’s cousin who works in the park as one of five full-time rangers. “People jump off the platform to peel off the bark to take as a souvenir.”
Trampling around the base of the tree also damaged the thin layer of bark on its roots, affecting nutrient absorption. After 29 more trees were vandalized by tourists, the Chilean National Forestry Company, which manages the country’s national parks, closed the trail indefinitely.
Barichivich hopes to prove it Great Abuelo is the oldest tree in the world, it could sound the alarm about the urgency with which we must protect the natural world. Although the scope of his search is much broader, Barichivich insists that the national park he grew up in is his place.
When he was eight, his grandfather disappeared on a routine patrol in the snow. His body was found two days later. Another uncle, also a forest ranger, later died in the park.
“It seems to be a family tradition,” Barichivich said. “Probably the same fate awaits me, dying with my boots on in the forest. But first I want to reveal its secrets ”.