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Today in the Sixth Extinction

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Back in 1997, I drove from Oregon to Tennessee to start graduate school. Had never been the most of the nation before. So I was pretty excited. One of the stops I made was in Great Basin National Park in Nevada. There is one of the places where you can see the bristlecone pine, the oldest living non-clonal organisms of the planet. They are gnarly and wind-beaten, but they hang out. Standing there looking at them was kind of amazing, not because they are so remarkable to look at but because of what they represent.

In 1997, serious public discussions about climate change were only just beginning. And our environmental quality has absolutely plummeted in the last 25 years and is guaranteed to be far, far worse in 2057 than it is today. So it’s not surprising that this wonderful species may not survive my lifetime.

The trees had stood for more than 1,000 years. Their sturdy roots clung to the crumbling mountainside. Their gnarled limbs reached toward the desert sky. The rings of their trunks told the story of everything they’d witnessed — every attack they’d rebuffed, every crisis they’d endured. Weather patterns shifted; empires rose and fell; other species emerged, mated, migrated, died. But here, in one of the harshest environments on the planet, the bristlecone pines survived. It seemed they always would.

Until the day in 2018 when Constance Millar ascended the trail to Telescope Peak — the highest point in Death Valley National Park — and discovered hundreds of dead and dying bristlecones extending as far as she could see.The trees’ needles glowed a flaming orange; their bark was a ghostly gray. Millar estimated that the damage encompassed 60 to 70 percent of the bristlecones on Telescope Peak.

“It’s like coming across a murder scene,” said Millar, an emerita research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who has studied bristlecone pines for the better part of 40 years.

In a study published this spring, she and fellow researchers showed that the West’s worst drought in at least 1,200 years had critically weakened the trees. Voracious bark beetles — a threat to which bristlecones were previously thought immune — delivered the death blow.

After outlasting millennia of disruptions and disaster, human-caused climate change is proving too much for the ancient trees to bear. Rising temperatures have caused an explosion in the populations of insects that threaten the trees and undermined their capacity to defend themselves, scientists say. Although Great Basin bristlecone pines are not considered at risk of extinction, cherished specimens and distinctive populations are struggling to survive.

One thing we are consistently finding with climate change is that scientists come up with some pretty bad scenarios about this or that piece of it–and then a few years later realize that it is actually a lot worse than their still pretty fresh worst case scenarios. It’s a grim world out there and we do……literally nothing to stop it. So I wouldn’t be too confident in the sustainability of the bristlecone.

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