Science | Geography | Design & Technology

Ancient trees that could save the world

Could cloning be the answer? As we discover the incredible benefits of the world's oldest trees, we are losing them to climate change. But an exciting new project offers hope. The firefighters watched in horror as flames engulfed the great tree. Nicknamed the Senator, the bald cypress was over 3,500 years old. it had grown to a height of 165 feet. For generations, families had come to try to join hands around its 12-foot wide trunk. But the forest fire had finally put an end to it. Such huge, ancient trees are vital to the environment: 1% of the largest trees hold 50% of the carbon stored in forests. A single sequoia can make up for the carbon footprint from one person’s whole life. But climate change has done enormous damage to these helpful giants. Droughts deprive them of the water they need and increase the risk of devastating fires. Insects are a threat too. In the Rocky Mountains tiny mountain-pine beetles burrow into trees and kill them. In the past, the beetles were killed off by very cold winters; now that winters are warmer, they survive. In one year, 80% of British Columbia’s mature lodge-pole pines died. A few years ago, 129 million trees died in California. Alarmed, David Milarch and his son Jared set out to clone the largest trees of each giant species in the US. They drove around the country to take small branches from giants listed in the National Register of Big Trees. The cuttings were then sent to a nursery so that new trees could be grown from them. The aim was to establish descendants of 800 trees in case the original ones died. Some of the new trees have been planted in the same forests as the originals, others at new sites such as the Presidio in San Francisco and the Eden Project in Cornwall. Part of the plan is to increase genetic diversity in places which have never had ancient trees. David Milarch believes that every specimen has a contribution to make: “A 2,000-year-old tree knows a thing or two about survival.” Could cloning be the answer? Leaf relief? Yes: Ancient trees can take in up to 12 times as much carbon as younger ones, and contribute enormously to biodiversity. We must do all we can to preserve them. Every country should have an archive.