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

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

Green shoots spring from the crevices of its thick, dark trunks, tight like the pipes of a great cathedral organ, and water trickles from its lichen-streaked bark onto the forest floor from bulbous knots in the wood .

“It was like a waterfall of greenery, a big presence in front of me,” climatologist Jonathan Barichivich, 41, recalls of the first time he encountered the great grandfatheror “great-grandfather”, child tree.

Barichivich grew up in the Alerce Costero National Park, 800 km south of the capital, Santiago. It houses hundreds of alerces, Fitzroya cupressoidsslow-growing conifers native to the cold, wet valleys of the southern Andes.

“I never thought how old great grandfather could be,” he said. “Records don’t really interest me.” However, Barichivich’s groundbreaking study has shown that the 100-foot (30-meter) giant may be the world’s oldest living tree.

In January 2020, he visited the great grandfather with his mentor and friend, the dendrochronologist Antonio Lara, to take a carrot from the trunk.

They were only able to reach 40% in the tree because its center is likely to be rotten, making a full core inaccessible. Yet this sample yielded a find of about 2,400 years old.

Undeterred, Barishivitch set about designing a model that could estimate the great grandfather‘sage. By taking the known ages of other alerces in the forest and accounting for climatic and natural variations, he calibrated a model that simulated a range of possible ages, producing a stunning estimate of 5,484 years.

That would make it more than six centuries older than Methuselah, an eastern California bristlecone pine 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 the old Tjikko from Norway, which is thought to be 9,558 years old.

Barichivich takes a carrot from a tree stump.
Barichivich takes a carrot from a tree stump. Photography: Solomon Henriquez

Barichivich thinks there’s an 80% chance the tree lived to be over 5,000 years old – but some colleagues have dismissed the findings. They claim that complete and countable ring nuclei are the only true way to determine age.

The climatologist hopes to publish his research early next year. He will continue to refine his model but dismisses the “colonialism” present on the ground.

“Some colleagues are skeptical and don’t understand why we revealed the discovery before officially 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 could already be too late.

Barichivich thinks ancient trees can help experts understand how forests interact with climate.

“The great grandfather is not just old, it’s a time capsule with a message about the future,” he said. “We have a 5,000-year life record 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 Laboratoire des sciences du climat et de l’environnement et de l’environnement in Paris, won a €1.5 million start-up grant from the European Research Council which he describes like the “holy grail” for a scientist.

It has embarked on a five-year project to assess the future ability of forests to sequester carbon, hoping to add tree-ring data from thousands of sites around the world for the first time. in climate simulations.

More than a third of the planet’s plant surface is covered in forests, capturing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, but current models can only make estimates for 20 or 30 years into the future.

By adding data on xylogenesis, the formation of wood, Barichivich thinks it could provide 100-year predictions for climate change – and revolutionize our ability to understand and mitigate its effects.

“If tree rings are a book, then for 40 years everyone just looked at the cover,” he said.

“Little by little, the tree is dying”

Barichivich, a climatologist, with Gran Abuelo in Alerce Costero National Park, Chile.
Barichivich poses with great grandfather. The climatologist has embarked on a five-year project to assess the future ability of forests to capture carbon. Photography: Solomon Henriquez/the Guardian

In an office surrounded by varnished samples, fragile cores and wood shavings, Barichivich’s mentor, Antonio Lara, 66, has spent his career piecing together temperature, rainfall and watershed levels across the story.

Lara, a professor at the Faculty of Forest Sciences and Natural Resources of the Austral University of Chile in the southern city of Valdivia, was able to prove that alerces can absorb carbon from the atmosphere and trap it for 1,500 to 2,000 years in standing dead trees. . Buried alerce trunks may contain carbon for over 4,000 years.

He also identified exact weather events by translating tree rings into numbers, which can then be read like a barcode. “The great-grandfather tree is a miracle for three reasons: it grew, it survived, and then it was discovered by Jonathan’s grandfather,” Lara said.

In the mid-1940s, Barichivich’s grandfather, Aníbal Henríquez, arrived from the southern town of Lautaro to work for the logging companies that felled the lahuanbecause the alerces are known in the indigenous language Mapudungun, his mother tongue.

He became the park’s first warden, but many giant alerces had already fallen victim to loggers before Chile banned their cutting in 1976.

The Alerce shingle was used as currency by local people throughout the 1700s and 1800s and the wood was commonly used in construction. The famous wooden churches of the island of Chiloé, protected by Unesco, are built from alerce trunks.

Henriquez fell on great grandfather while on patrol in the early 1970s. Although he was initially hesitant to reveal the find, word quickly spread and people started arriving: now over 10,000 tourists descend each summer on the small wooden viewing platform next to the tree.

Tree of Alerce
The Alerce shingle was used as currency by local people throughout the 1700s and 1800s. Photography: Krystyna Szulecka Photography / Alamy

Other alerces in the valley have fallen victim to loggers or wildfires, leaving the gnarled tree standing alone. “Little by little the tree is dying,” said Marcelo Delgado, Barichivich’s cousin who works in the park as one of five full-time rangers. “People jump from the platform to peel off the bark to take away as a souvenir.”

Footsteps around the base of the tree have also damaged the thin layer of bark at its roots, affecting nutrient uptake. After another 29 trees were vandalized by tourists, Chile’s national forestry company, which manages the country’s national parks, closed the trail indefinitely.

Barichivich hopes that by showing that great grandfather is the oldest tree in the world, it could sound the alarm about the urgency with which we need to protect the natural world. Although the scope of his research is much broader, Barichivich insists that the national park he grew up in is where he belongs.

When he was eight years old, his grandfather disappeared while on a routine patrol in the snow. His body was found two days later. Another uncle, also a park ranger, later died in the park.

“It seems to be a family tradition,” Barichivich said. “The same fate probably awaits me, dying with my boots in the forest. But first, I want to unlock its secrets.

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