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The Bristlecones Don’t Lie

[ 15 ] September 19, 2011 |


A study published in 2009 — with Matthew Salzer of the Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona as the lead author — found bristlecone ring-growth rates in the second half of the 20th century to be higher than in any other 50-year period in the last 3,700 years.

“The accelerated growth is suggestive of an environmental change unprecedented in millennia,” the report states. As a result, the bristlecone pine is considered by many dendrochronologists to be an “indicator species” for climate change.

This is not good. Bristlecone pines are the oldest living things on the planet. To see significant tree ring growth versus any other time since 1700 BC is extremely strong evidence for climate change.

Also, you have to love the story in the article about finding a scientist finding the oldest bristlecone in the 1960s and the basic response is, “let’s cut it down!”

Maybe this will make me feel less depressed about it. If Richard Manuel can ever really make someone feel less depressed….


Comments (15)

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  1. Dr. Drang says:

    There was a Radiolab story about Currey last year. In that telling, no one had any idea the tree was that old, and it was not unusual to cut down bristlecones. Currey was haunted by his actions and went into other fields of research to avoid being reminded of his mistake.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Interesting. Didn’t know that about him.

      Nonetheless, such attitudes were pretty typical of how scientists approached the environment during these years.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        The bit about climate change remains more important.

        • Vance Maverick says:

          To expand on this thought a bit: I think we can rank environmental crimes on a scale. For example:

          3. Destroying the oldest bristlecone (the golden spruce, etc.)
          2. Destroying all bristlecones (passenger pigeons, dodos, etc.)
          1. Changing the climate so that all living things are affected and many die

          #3, while it’s callous, and should give any of us long years of sleepless nights (as evidently it did to Currey (I was going to type Calley)), is to me clearly not in the same league as #2, let alone #1.

  2. joel hanes says:

    a scientist finding the oldest bristlecone in the 1960s and the basic response is, “let’s cut it down!”

    That’s not what the article says at all.
    You’re usually better about stuff like this.

    Currey, whose research was conducted on a shoestring, found that his very expensive core boring tool could not be extricated from the tree. He had no spare; leaving it in the tree would have meant leaving the mountains and buying another, expending time and funds he didn’t have.

    Because he had no core to examine, he didn’t yet know that the very tree in which his core borer was stuck was probably the oldest living non-clonal organism on earth — yes, he knew it was probably very old, but the same mountains bear other bristlecones that seem equally old.

    Your gloss suggests that Currey approached this unintentional tragedy as a lark. This is unfair to a man who was haunted by his mistake for years afterward.

    • I didn’t get the ‘lark’ thing from Erik at all. I understood it to be a remark upon the rather callous disregard of a scientist of that time. I doubt that any scientist, even one working for the oil companies, would do such a thing today. I could be wrong.

  3. Makes me think of L’Arbre du Ténéré. It wasn’t, however, sacrificed to science.

  4. Greco says:

    Yeah, well, al gore is still fat.

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