Alerce, A Mysterious Phenomenon Examined Scientifically

The Gran Abuelo tree in Alerce Costero national park, Chile. Buried alerce trunks can hold carbon for more than 4,000 years. Photograph: Salomón Henríquez

I do not recall whether we saw the tree pictured above, but we certainly breathed in the oxygen it expired. We spent the summer of 2009 in southern Chile, some of it working in the Chaihuin River Valley–a portion of the Reserva Costera Valdiviana co-owned at the time by WWF and The Nature Conservancy. The “Caleta” entrance to Chaihuin can be seen in the map below.

We have also seen the redwood trees in California, distant cousins of the alerce. Spectacular is an insufficient word to describe them, but hours-long visits to redwoods cannot compare to sleeping night after night under alerces. Chaihuin was for our family an immersion into the alerce ecosystem. Although I reserve the word miracle for other types of mysterious phenomena, I have no problem with a scientist using the word in this manner:

Alerce shingle was used as currency by local populations throughout the 1700s and 1800s. Photograph: Krystyna Szulecka Photography/Alamy

‘It’s a miracle’: Gran Abuelo in Chile could be world’s oldest living tree

100ft alerce has estimated age of 5,484, more than 600 years older than Methuselah in California

In a secluded valley in southern Chile, a lone alerce tree stands above the canopy of an ancient forest.

Green shoots sprout from the crevices in its thick, dark trunks, huddled like the pipes of a great cathedral organ, and water streams down its lichen-streaked bark on to the forest floor from bulbous knots in the wood.

“It was like a waterfall of green, a great presence before me,” remembers the climate scientist Jonathan Barichivich, 41, of the first time he encountered the Gran Abuelo, or “great-grandfather”, tree as a child.

Barichivich grew up in Alerce Costero national park, 500 miles (800km) south of the capital, Santiago. It is home to hundreds of alerces, Fitzroya cupressoides, slow-growing conifers native to the cold, wet valleys of the southern Andes.

“I never thought about how old the Gran Abuelo could be,” he said. “Records don’t really interest me.” However, Barichivich’s groundbreaking study has shown the 100ft (30-metre) giant could be the world’s oldest living tree.

In January 2020, he visited the Gran Abuelo with his mentor and friend, the dendrochronologist Antonio Lara, to take a core sample from the trunk.

They were able to reach only 40% into the tree as its centre is likely to be rotten, making a complete core unattainable. Yet that sample yielded a finding of about 2,400 years.

Undeterred, Barichivich set about devising a model that could estimate the Gran Abuelo’s age. Taking the known ages of other alerces in the forest and factoring in climate and natural variation, he calibrated a model that simulated a range of possible ages, producing an astounding estimate of 5,484 years old.

That would make it more than six centuries senior to Methuselah, a bristlecone pine in eastern California recognised 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 Sweden’s Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce thought to be 9,558 years old…

Read the whole article here.

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