By María M. Mur
Valdivia, Chile, Jul 20 (EFE).- Ever since he was a child, scientist Jonathan Barichivich sensed that the “Great Grandfather”, the alerce tree — or Patagonian cypress — that his family painstakingly took care of in Los Ríos in southern Chile, was special. Now, more than three decades later, he has discovered why: at nearly 5,500 years old, it could well be the oldest tree in the world.
The discovery came about almost by chance, when Barichivich was studying the impact of climate change on alerce trees, a conifer species native to Patagonia that is threatened by a variety of factors, such as wildfires, logging and drought.
“We obtained a small sample of the tree and, although it was not the initial objective of the research, we were able to estimate its age. We were very surprised to discover that it is much older than we thought, since we thought it was between 3,500 and 4,000 years old,” he tells Efe in front of the almost 30 meter-tall giant.
The star of the Alerce Costero National Park, 800 kilometers south of Santiago, the “Great Grandfather” is older than “Methuselah”, the 4,853 year-old pine tree in California that previously held the record.
Antonio Lara, professor at the Austral University of Chile and co-author of the study, tells Efe that both are “non-cloned” specimens, in that they are not connected to other trees by a common root system, unlike, for example, the Norwegian spruce “Old Tjikko”, which is at least 9,550 years old.
“Non-cloned trees live shorter lives, which is why this finding is so extraordinary,” he says.
The final result of the study will be released in the coming months, although “Science” magazine recently published a preview that has revolutionized the scientific world.
AN UNUSUAL METHOD
Dendrochronology is the science that studies 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 extracted. This was the case with “Methuselah.”
In the case of “Millenary Alerce”, as the “Great Grandfather” is also known, the drilling device could not reach the center because of the sheer enormity of the trunk, which is more than 4 meters in diameter.
“We reached only 40% of the total radius. In that small sample, we counted 2,400 years. The question is how many years are in the other half that we couldn’t reach, and the answer is not a simple sum,” says Barichivich, who is currently working at the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement in Paris.
Using a larger drill to reach the center would put the tree at risk, so they developed a statistical model to calculate the tree’s real age, which combines information from hundreds of other alerce trees in the park. The results show 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 says that skepticism surrounding new ideas “is the natural process of science.”
“There is a kind of American colonialism in science, in how we construct knowledge and how it is validated”.
Lara adds: “This is not a championship, we don’t like records. This tree has value for many more things, beyond its age.”
THREE GENERATIONS OF “GUARDIANS”
“Great Grandfather” is closely linked to the history of Barichivich’s family, who are known in the area as the tree’s “guardians.”
It was Jonathan’s grandfather, Aníbal Henríquez, who first “encountered” the alerce in the 1970s when he worked as a park ranger. Then his mother, also a park ranger, took on the mantle, and now it is his turn.
“It has been part of our life and we have perhaps become part of the tree’s life as well,” he says.