Since childhood, the scientist Jonathan Barichivich sensed that the ‘great grandpa‘, the alerce tree that his family cared for with great care in Los Ríos (southern Chile), was special. Now, more than three decades later, he has just found out why: At nearly 5,500 years old, it could be the oldest tree in the world..
The discovery occurred almost by chance, when Barichivich was studying the impact of climate change on larchesa species of conifer typical of Patagonia and threatened by different factors, such as fires, logging or drought.
“We obtained a small sample of the tree and, although it was not the initial objective of the investigation, we were able to estimate its age. We were very surprised to discover that is much older than we thoughtbecause we believed that it was between 3,500 and 4,000 years old,” he told Efe in front of this giant of almost 30 meters in height.
Become the star of the Alerce Costero National Park, 800 kilometers south of Santiago, the ‘great grandpa’ would be older than “Methuselah”the pine from California (USA) that until now held the record, with 4,853 years.
Antonio Lara, professor at the Southern University of Chile and co-author of the investigation, explains to Efe that both are “uncloned” specimensthat is, they are not connected to other trees by a common root system, unlike for example the spruce Norway ‘Old Tjikko‘, of at least 9,550 years. “Uncloned trees live less, which is why this finding is so extraordinary,” she says.
The final result of the study will be disclosed in the coming months, although the magazine ‘Science’ recently published a breakthrough that revolutionized the scientific world.
an unusual method
Dendrochronology is the science that studies, among other aspects, the age of trees through their rings. To count them, the trunk is usually drilled to the center and a sample no more than five millimeters wide is removed. That’s how it was done with “Methuselah“.
In the case of the ‘Millennium Larch‘, as the ‘Great grandfather‘, the piercing device could not reach the center due to the immensity of its trunk, more than 4 meters in diameter.
“We only reached 40% of the total radius. In that small sample, we counted 2,400 years. The question is how many years are there in the other half that we could not access, and the answer is not a simple sum,” says Barichivich, who currently works at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in Paris.
Using a larger hole punch to reach the center would put the tree at risk, so they developed a statistical model to calculate the remaining years, combining information from hundreds of other larch trees in the park and estimating that there is an 80% chance that it is older than ‘Methuselah’.
Barichivich is aware that his method is not going to please the entire scientific community, but he says that skepticism about the new is “the natural process of science”: “There is a kind of American colonialism in science, in how we build knowledge and how it is validated”.
“This is not a championship, we don’t like records. This tree has value for many more things, beyond its age,” adds Lara.
Three generations of “guardians”
The ‘Great Grandfather’ is closely linked to the history of the family of barichovichwho are known in the area as their ‘guardians’.
It was the scientist’s grandfather, Aníbal Henriquez, who ‘found’ the larch in the decade of 1970 when he worked as a park ranger. Then her mother, also a forest ranger, took over from him, and now it’s his turn. “She has been part of our life and we have perhaps also become part of the tree’s life,” she says.
Its privileged location in the Valdivian forest, in a kind of valley an hour’s walk from the park entrance, without other larch trees around it, has protected it from logging and fires, although its structure is weak and only 30% live.
Their biggest enemies now are climate change and tourism, which has increased considerably in recent times. For the first, the solution seems complicated.
For the second, on the other hand, the state-owned National Forestry Corporation (Conaf) has decided temporarily close the park until designing a new strategy that allows the arrival of visitors without endangering the specimen.
“Tourism and conservation are fully compatible, but the former must be ordered and regulated”acknowledges Pablo Cunazza, from Conaf. The ‘Great Grandpa’, Barichivich concludes, it’s a time capsule” that carries “a message into the future” on its rings: “Our role is to protect it and allow it to continue to advance its message.”