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Environment & Science

What can California's ancient bristlecone pines tell us about climate change?

The Bristlecone's Fate - AudioVision Ep. 3
The Bristlecone's Fate - AudioVision Ep. 3
KPCC (via Vimeo)

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The oldest trees on Earth — indeed, the oldest living things on Earth — are in California. But, no, they’re not the towering giant sequoias. They’re the gnarled and stumpy bristlecone pines of the White Mountains.

Ross Andersen — a Senior Editor at Aeon Magazine ,where he writes about science and philosophy — made the trek through cold and snow to reach the bristlecones and wrote an informative – and poetic — essay on just how old these trees are, and even what they can tell us about climate change. 


So just how old are the bristlecones? Andersen says that, just this year, scientists found a tree more than 5,000 years old. If you can’t wrap your mind around just how old these trees are, Andersen gives some context.

“It germinated in 3051 B.C. or thereabouts. For perspective, that’s right around the time the city of Troy was founded,” Andersen says. “These are trees that were saplings when the pyramids were raised.”

The bristlecones are unfathomably old, and they've lived through a lot. But even though these trees can’t talk, they still have a story to tell about the planet’s deep past. By studying the bristlecones’ rings, scientists (the fancy term is dendrochronologists), can not only tell how old the trees are, but also what was going on with Earth’s climate thousands of years ago. Andersen says high altitude bristlecones tailor their growth to temperature.

“The hotter it gets, the fatter the rings they produce,” Andersen says. And the bristlecones' rings have something to tell us about the last 50 years or so. “Over the last half century, they’ve grown faster than in any period over the last 3,700 years, suggesting that temperatures are warming pretty dramatically up there.”

Bristlecones aren’t fattening up just in the White Mountains either. Andersen says scientists have found the same trend of warming in several other bristlecone habitats in the western U.S.

But the bristlecones aren’t all bad news. As Andersen writes in his piece for Aeon: “To see the living bristlecones is to be struck by their beauty, but also by their strangeness.”

If you’d like to see some of these trees for yourself, KPCC’s AudioVision team braved the wind and cold to make a video about the bristlecones. You can check out the AudioVision video here.