A wizened veteran survives in an ancient garden of bald cypress trees in the wetlands of North Carolina. Located in the Black River, many of the trees are older than a thousand years. But one in particular among the ancient cypress trees is exceptionally old and could be the oldest tree in the eastern US. A study done in 2019 found that it has been around since 605 BC. That makes it the oldest of the living trees in the eastern part of North America. It is also the fifth-oldest tree species in the world that isn’t a genetic duplication of an original tree.
But man is poised to do what time has not managed. The Cypress trees of North Carolina could drown under the rising seas as man continues to turn a blind eye to warning signs blaring around the planet. The 2,624 years old cypress tree could still teach us about the combined threats that they face to their survival. They would if they could speak, use their centuries of wisdom to teach us, humans, ways to ease and adapt to the unprecedented changes brought about by the climate crisis.
The Ancient Giant Cypress Trees
Retired botanist Julie Moore says that the cypress trees are different, they ‘have personality’ she says. The former coordinator with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has been mapping the wetlands for a long time and has seen every swamp in the country.
An associate of Moore, David Stahle used radiocarbon dating and tree ring mapping to discover that among the cypress trees of North Carolina, ‘Methuselah’ dated back to 364 A.D. On a visit a quarter of a century later, he came upon the 2,624 years old cypress in the Three Sister swamp further up the Black River, almost 1,000 years older than Methuselah.
Stahle has been involved in research in the Black River area. He has mapped the ancient forests and reconstructed their rainfall patterns. What he found was disturbing. Intense storms, floods, heatwaves, and droughts, combined with rising temperatures were affecting the resilience, growth, and reproductive pattern of these ancient giants.
Stahle says that climate change precipitated by human activity has always been the principal threat to forests. The cypress trees are at an elevation of just 6 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Sea levels are rising at the rate of 2 inches at resent, but are rapidly accelerating. Given the trend, the cypress trees, including the ancient giants will be underwater by 2080.
Stahle compares the rise in sea levels with an alarm on an overloaded train. Even with the warning, it takes a long time to slow down. Even if we were to initiate changes to arrest the trend, it would be a long time before climate changes could be reserved. And nothing has been done anyway to reverse the trend. Things remain in the planning stages.
Though ecological changes are slow and measured, drastic trends happen that ring about rapid changes within the span of a generation. The planet has already lost a third of its old forests, from the beginning of the 20th century. Just a year ago, 10% of the giant sequoias were killed. And rising temperatures have impinged upon the productivity of many species of trees.
If The Ancient Cypress Trees Go Down, So Would An Entire Ecosystem
It is the ancient forests that hold the ecology together. When trees within these forests die, they affect the entire ecosystem. They stand as the foundation of the forest around which all other life forms depend. And their destruction means the death of birds, rodents, insects, and even large mammals, says Angelica Patterson, plant ecophysiologist.
And the effect can be over a long distance, sometimes across continents. The loss of trees in the northwest Pacific had a negative effect on the climatic patterns in the eastern regions of the United States. The old forests are the carbon sinks of the land. The appropriate and store carbon emissions. They have been doing precisely that for centuries. And their death has terrible consequences. Not only do they stop taking in carbon, but they also release the amount taken back into the atmosphere. The loss of forests even strips the coasts of natural barriers that save inland areas from the fury of storm surges.
The areas along the Black River exhibit innumerable signs that climate changes have already started to take effect. The rising sea levels have driven saline waters further inland and have decimated large patches of forests. The last 35 years alone have seen the destruction of 10% of forest cover.
Charles Robbins, who has guided Stahle through these swamps for years has seen the effect of extreme flooding following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, in these areas as houses went underwater. He speaks about his parent’s house that went under floodwaters in an area that had never faced it before. Hurricane Florence came through a couple of years later. It inundated areas under 36 inches of hard rain and unrelenting floods.
The Future Is Grim But Efforts Are On
The North Carolina forests housing the cypress trees are expected to rise by 40% by 2050. But old-timers are more worried about the intrusion of tourists. In 2018, plans for a state park on the Black River were dropped after locals vehemently opposed the move.
Conservationists such as Moore agree with the communities. She says that pollution, the disturbance of the ecosystem, and the depletion of scarce natural resources would also affect the fragile ecosystem if tourism was allowed to flourish in the area.
But others have said that bringing in tourists could help in conservation efforts. Land protection specialist Hervey McIver, who has supported the move for bringing in tourism, says that the administration and people will eventually turn around.
The solution to saving the ancient cypress trees lies in curbing emissions, creating shorelines to act as a buffer against storm surges, adding more marsh plants to draw away the increasing salinity, sustainable use of coastal resources, and strong action to stop pollution. Environmentalist Katharine Napora says that the cypress trees are a vast storehouse of knowledge and she compares the cypress forests to the library of Alexandria which was burnt. Their loss will be an immense loss of a storehouse of ecological information she says.