Climate: World’s biggest, oldest trees dying fast

Global trend concerns leading ecologists

Ancient Colorado lodgepole pines have been killed by pine beetles, Bob Berwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Colorado ‘s old lodgepoles aren’t the only forest giants that are dying. Around the world, the biggest, oldest trees that harbor and sustain countless birds and other wildlife, are meeting the same fate.

Three of the world’s leading ecologists say they’ve documented an alarming increase in the death rate of trees between 100 and 300 years old in many of the world’s forests, woodlands, savannahs, farming areas and even in cities.

“It’s a worldwide problem and appears to be happening in most types of forest,” said lead author Professor David Lindenmayer, of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and Australian National University.

“Large old trees are critical in many natural and human-dominated environments. Studies of ecosystems around the world suggest populations of these trees are declining rapidly,” he and colleagues Professor Bill Laurance of James Cook University, Australia, and Professor Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, concluded in their report, published last week in Science.

“Research is urgently needed to identify the causes of rapid losses of large old trees and strategies for improved management. Without … policy changes, large old trees will diminish or disappear in many ecosystems, leading to losses of their associated biota and ecosystem functions,” the researcher said.

Lindenmayer said the first clue to the loss of big old trees came from examining Swedish forestry records going back to the 1860s. Then, a 30-year study of mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) forests in Australia confirmed not only that big old trees were dying en masse in forest fires, but also perishing at ten times the normal rate in non-fire years – apparently due to drought, high temperatures, logging and other causes.

Looking round the world, the scientists found similar trends at all latitudes, in California’s Yosemite National Park, on the African savannahs, in the rainforests of Brazil, the temperate forests of Europe and the boreal forests of the far north. Losses of large trees were also pronounced in agricultural landscapes and even cities, where people make efforts to preserve them.

“It is a very, very disturbing trend. We are talking about the loss of the biggest living organisms on the planet, of the largest flowering plants on the planet, of organisms that play a key role in regulating and enriching our world,” said Professor Bill Laurance of James Cook University.

“Large old trees play critical ecological roles. They provide nesting or sheltering cavities for up to 30 percent of all birds and animals in some ecosystems,” Laurance said. “They store huge amounts of carbon. They recycle soil nutrients, create rich patches for other life to thrive in, and influence the flow of water within landscapes and the local climate.

“Big trees supply abundant food for numerous animals in the form of fruits, flowers, foliage and nectar. Their hollows offer nests and shelter for birds and animals like Australia’s endangered Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) – and their loss could mean extinction for such creatures,” he continued.

“In agricultural landscapes, large old trees can be focal points for vegetation restoration; they help connect the landscape by acting as stepping stones for many animals that disperse seeds and pollen,” he concluded.

The alarming decline in old trees in so many types of forest appears to be driven by a combination of forces, including land clearing, agricultural practices, man-made changes in fire regimes, logging and timber gathering, insect attack and rapid climatic changes, said Franklin.

“For example, populations of large old pines in the dry forests of western North America declined dramatically over the last century because of selective logging, uncharacteristically severe wildfires, and other causes,” Laurance added.

The researchers likened the global loss of big trees to the tragedy that has already befallen the world’s largest mammals, such as elephants, rhinos, tigers and whales, cautioning that almost nowhere do conservation programs have the time-frames lasting centuries, which are needed to assure the survival of old trees.

“Just as large-bodied animals such as elephants, tigers and cetaceans have declined drastically in many parts of the world, a growing body of evidence suggests that large old trees could be equally imperilled,” they warned.

The study triggered a call for an urgent world-wide investigation to assess the extent of big tree loss, and to identify areas where big trees have a better chance of survival.

The paper, “Rapid Worldwide Declines of Large Old Trees,” by David B. Lindenmayer, William F. Laurance and Jerry F. Franklin appeared in the most recent issue of the journal Science.


One thought on “Climate: World’s biggest, oldest trees dying fast

  1. Not to detract from the vitally important implications of old tree decline, but in their narrow focus the authors of this study didn’t include the rather crucial and even more deeply frightening fact that young trees are dying off just as rapidly. Underpinning the overall decline is the inexorably increasing, persistent background level of tropospheric ozone.

    Hundreds of studies have been carried out over decades, by academics collaborating with forestry agencies and agronomists to establish without any doubt that ozone, although invisible, is highly toxic to vegetation, which absorbs it in the process of photosynthesis. Repairing damage to leaves and needles robs energy that should be devoted to developing roots systems, rendering plants more vulnerable to drought and wind.

    We saw this in both Irene and Sandy, where winds were not extraordinary and yet millions of trees fell over, knocking power out, their rotted interiors exposed.

    The most pernicious effect of ozone is to exhaust stored resources in trees making them more susceptible to pathogens, such as insects, disease and fungus. Most orthodox scientists blame these proximate attacks for tree decline, which is like blaming lung cancer on genetics instead of smoking.

    This goes for the explosion of bark beetles, which is almost always blamed on warmer temperatures despite studies from the 1950’s in the hills above Los Angeles, where it was already common knowledge that the intense pollution from the basin was weakening the conifers and causing bark beetles to run amock…and which obviously wasn’t due to the lack of freezing temperatures since it never got cold there in the first place.

    It will only be up for a week, but the reporter in this BBC radio programme about the astonishingly rapid spread of ash dieback makes it very, very clear when he visits Poland seeking the origins of the killer fungus, that not only are the old trees dying, but the young trees are going even faster

    Any serious and complete discussion of the horrific and rapidly accelerating extinction event that is affecting all species around the world which doesn’t factor in the underlying poisonous effect of air pollution is, forgive the pun, missing the forest for the trees.

    I highly recommend “An Appalachian Tragedy” which can be obtained used on Amazon for very little and is an excellent primer on this subject. You can also download my book for free here: or check my blog for links to recent articles and research

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