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Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

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Will Climate Change Claim the Redwoods?

4/18/2011 5:17:07 PM

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Redwoods, Big Basin State Park, California

Northern California’s iconic redwood groves are facing tough growing conditions in a warming world, writes Sierra magazine: “With diminishing snowpack in the Sierra and decreasing fog along the coast, redwoods face a hostile future and a worst-case scenario that could result in more Sequoioideae museums than functioning forests.”

To study the sequoias more closely, Sierra reports, tree scientists are ascending into the canopy using mountaineering gear, then counting cones, taking core samples, measuring branches and otherwise inspecting trees like doctors doing a full physical. They then create computerized, highly detailed 3-D simulations of each tree.

Eventually they hope this data will help craft strategies for survival, but they’re also learning a lot as they go. One of the most fascinating recent findings involves the amazing productivity of old giants. Writes Sierra:

The study has already shattered some long-standing misconceptions about redwoods. Contrary to popular belief, the oldest trees, far from becoming doddering retirees, produce wood at a rate comparable to that of young trees. “People used to think that old trees were just sitting there clinging to life,” Sillett says, “but they are producing a lot of wood. A lot of wood.” This means that each redwood is an important and ever-expanding link in the carbon-absorption chain.

Green groups including the Sierra Club, the publisher of Sierra, have repeatedly challenged the U.S. Forest Service’s management plans for the redwoods at Giant Sequoia National Monument, arguing that controlled fires, not logging, will help the redwood forests thrive, since they use fires to procreate.

As for the prospecting of decreasing fog in an area renowned for its misty beauty, Northern California’s Terrain last year delved into this topic and emerged with inconclusive predictions from fog researchers. For if ancient trees do not easily give up their secrets, the fog withholds even more:

Fog, even as a scientific entity, is elusive and wily and ethereal, defying our attempts at easy prediction.

 Sources: Sierra, Terrain 

Image by richardmasoner, licensed under Creative Commons. 



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