Researchers Are Climbing Trees to Save California’s Giant Sequoias From Drought

Scientists fear the state’s record drought could kill off the ancient trees.

(Photo: Flickr)

Aug 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
TakePart editorial fellow Nicole Mormann covers a variety of topics, including social justice, entertainment, and environment.

Some of Earth’s largest and longest-living trees, the giant sequoias, could be at risk of dying due to California’s worst drought in more than 1,200 years, according to scientists.

However, environmental researchers in Northern California are taking their concern to new heights by scaling 50 of the trees in Sequoia National Park to determine the four-year-old drought’s impact on them.

“We’ve already climbed the trees and set it up with rigging,” said Anthony Ambrose, a University of California, Berkeley, tree biologist and project lead. “We’re focused on the biggest, oldest ones in the forest, which could be anywhere between 600 to 3,000 years old.”

Armed with crossbows, Ambrose and his team shoot fishing lines over the limbs of their target trees, the tallest standing more than 290 feet tall. Once they anchor the end of the line to the ground, the biologists climb up the rope to the top of the tree, inching their way up like worms.

The team is returning next week to collect leaf clippings from different heights so they can later measure their water content in a pressurized chamber. Rainfall sensors were set up in previous visits to measure the amount of rain falling on the region, as well as groundwater levels.

For almost two decades, Ambrose has been studying coast redwoods and giant sequoias in California. Last year, the drought’s effect on these species came to his attention after a colleague, research ecologist Nate Stevenson, noticed on a hike that many of the giant sequoias’ leaves appeared to be browning and looked unusually sparse.

That led Ambrose and his team of researchers at UC Berkeley to partner with the National Park Service, Stanford University, and the United States Forest Service on the first health study on giant sequoias.

“While we’re evaluating the water status of these trees from a ground level, Stanford researchers will fly over the landscape to assess the color of the leaves,” Ambrose said. “We’re hoping we can use our combined data to help national parks solve this issue.”