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

In a remote valley in the south Chilia lone alerce tree stands above the canopy of an ancient forest.

Green shoots sprout from the fissures in its thick, dark trunks, huddled like the pipes of a great cathedral organ, and water flows through the lichen-strewn bark on the forest floor from bulbous knots in the wood.

“It was like a waterfall of greenery, a big presence for me,” climate scientist Jonathan Barichivich, 41, recalls of the first time he tested the Gran Abuelocor “great-grandfather”, tree as a child.

Barichivich grew up in the Alerce Costero National Park, 800 kilometers south of the capital Santiago. It is home to hundreds of warnings, Fitzroya cupressoidesslow-growing conifers native to the cold, wet valleys of the southern Andes.

“I never thought about how old the Gran Abueloc “I don’t really care about records,” he said. “However, Barichivich’s groundbreaking study has shown that the 30-meter-tall giant could be the world’s oldest living tree.

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

They could only reach 40% into the tree, as the center is likely rotten, making a full core inaccessible. Still, that sample yielded a finding about 2,400 years old.

Undeterred, Barichivich began to devise a model that Gran Abueloc‘wise. Using the known ages of other alarms in the forest and taking climate and natural variation into account, he calibrated a model simulating a range of possible ages, with an astonishing estimate of 5,484 years old.

That would make it more than six centuries older than Methuselah, a brush pine in eastern California, 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 Norway’s ancient Tjikko, thought to be 9,558 years old.

Barichivich takes a core sample from a tree stump.
Barichivich takes a core sample from a tree stump. Photo: Salomon Henriquez

Barichivich believes there’s an 80% chance the tree has lived for more than 5,000 years, but some colleagues have expressed disdain for the findings. They claim that complete, countable tree rings are the only real way to determine age.

The climate scientist hopes to publish his research early next year. He will continue to refine his model, but waves away the ‘colonialism’ in the field.

“Some colleagues are skeptical and don’t understand why we disclosed the finding before formally publishing it,” he said. “But this is post-normal science. We have very little time to intervene – we cannot wait a year or two, it may already be too late.”

Barichivich believes that old trees can help experts understand how forests deal with the climate.

“The Gran Abueloc is not just old, it is a time capsule with a message about the future,” he said. “In this tree alone, we have a 5,000-year history of life, 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 Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences and Environment in Paris, won a start-up grant of 1.5 million euros from the European Research Council that he describes as the “holy grail” for a scientist.

He has embarked on a five-year project to assess the future capacity of forests to capture carbon, hoping to add tree ring data from thousands of locations around the world to climate simulations for the first time.

More than a third of the planet’s vegetated surface is covered by forests, which trap carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, but current models can only estimate for 20 or 30 years into the future.

By adding data for xylogenesis, the formation of wood, Barichivich believes he can provide 100-year predictions for climate change — and revolutionize our ability to understand and mitigate its effects.

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

‘Little by little the tree dies’

Barichivich, a climate scientist, with Gran Abuelo in Chile's Alerce Costero National Park.
Barichivich poses with Gran Abueloc. The climate scientist has embarked on a five-year project to assess the future capacity of forests to sequester carbon. Photo: Salomon Henriquez/the Guard

In an office surrounded by varnished monsters, fragile cores and wood shavings, Barichivich’s mentor Antonio Lara, 66, has spent his career reconstructing temperature, precipitation and watersheds throughout history.

Lara, a professor in the Faculty of Forest Sciences and Natural Resources at Chile’s Austral University in the southern city of Valdivia, has been able to prove that alerces can absorb carbon from the atmosphere and retain it in standing dead trees for between 1,500 and 2,000 years. Buried alert trunks can retain carbon for more than 4,000 years.

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

In the mid-1940s, Barichivich’s grandfather, Aníbal Henríquez, arrived from the southern city of Lautaro to work for the forestry companies that lahuanas the alerces are known in the native language Mapudungun, his mother tongue.

He became the first manager of the park, but many giant alert trees had fallen victim to loggers before Chile made their felling illegal in 1976.

Alerce gravel was used as currency by the locals in the 18th and 19th centuries and the wood was widely used in construction. The famous Unesco-protected wooden churches on the island of Chiloé are built of alerce tribes.

Henriquez came across by chance Gran Abueloc during a patrol in the early 1970s. Though he was initially hesitant to publicize the find, the news soon got out and people started pouring in: now more than 10,000 tourists flock to the small wooden viewing platform next to the tree every summer.

alarm tree
Alerce gravel was used as currency by the locals in the 18th and 19th centuries. Photo: Krystyna Szulecka Photography/Alamy

Other alarms in the valley fell victim to loggers or wildfires, leaving the gnarled tree alone. “Little by little, the tree is dying,” says Marcelo Delgado, Barichivich’s cousin who works as one of the park’s five full-time rangers. “People jump off the platform to peel off the bark and take it with them as souvenirs.”

Footsteps around the base of the tree have also damaged the thin layer of bark on the roots, affecting nutrient absorption. After 29 other trees were destroyed by tourists, Chile’s National Forestry Company, which manages the country’s national parks, closed the trail indefinitely.

Barichivich hopes that by showing that Gran Abueloc is the oldest tree in the world, it could sound the alarm about the urgency with which we must protect the natural world. Although the scope of his research is much broader, Barichivich emphasizes that he belongs in the national park in which he grew up.

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

“It seems like it’s a family tradition,” Barichivich said. “Probably the same fate awaits me, dying with my boots on in the woods. But first I want to unravel its secrets.”

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