In a breathtaking display of nature’s majesty, a single photograph has captured The President, the world’s second-largest tree, in all its towering grandeur.
Too tall for our lead photo, this article contains a single ‘mosaic’ image of the world’s 2nd biggest tree. Comprised of 126 Frames, 2 Billion Leaves, and at 247ft/75.3m tall, the sight is mind-blowing.
One Image, 126 Frames, 2 Billion Leaves, 247ft/75.3m tall
These staggering numbers represent one single tree, a giant sequoia called The President. What’s even more mind-blowing is that the tree is more than 3 thousand years old, and comprised of some 54,000 cubic feet (1530 cubic metres) of wood and bark. Photographer Michael Nichols photographed the 250ft behemoth in Sequoia National Park.
The President: One Photo, 126 Frames, 2 Billion Leaves, 247 Feet Cloaked in the snows of California’s Sierra Nevada, the 3,200-year-old giant sequoia called the President rises 247 feet. Two other sequoias have wider trunks, but none has a larger crown, say the scientists who climbed it. The figure at top seems taller than the other climbers because he’s standing forward on one of the great limbs. Source: Michael Nichols/National Geographic/NPR.org
Forest of Giants
On a gentle slope above a trail junction in Sequoia National Park, about 7,000ft/2134m above sea level in the southern Sierra Nevada, looms a very big tree indeed. Its trunk is rusty red, thickened with deep layers of furrowed bark, and 27ft/8.23m in diameter at the base. Its footprint would cover your dining room. Trying to glimpse its top, or craning to see the shape of its crown, could give you a sore neck. That is, this tree is so big you can scarcely look at it all. It has a name, the President, bestowed about 90 years ago by admiring humans. It’s a giant sequoia, a member of Sequoiadendron giganteum, one of several surviving species of redwoods.
Cross section from the “Mark Twain Tree”, in the American Museum of Natural History The museum’s curator marked on its annual rings selected events of human history. Its birth in 550 AD made Mark Twain a contemporary of Justinian, Emperor of the Roman Empire. When “Mark Twain” was cut down in 1891, the giant Sequoia was 1,341 years old (a relative youngster compared to The President), and measured 331 ft (100.9 m) high and 90 ft (27.4 m) in circumference at the base. Source: Pinterest
Almost impervious to the regular dangers to trees, these silent giants’ only threat is man
While “The President” is not quite the largest tree on Earth, it’s the second largest. Research by scientist Steve Sillett of Humboldt State University and his colleagues has confirmed that the President ranks number two among all big trees that have ever been measured—and Sillett’s team has measured quite a few. It doesn’t stand so tall as the tallest of coast redwoods or of Eucalyptus regnansin Australia, but height isn’t everything; it’s far more massive than any coast redwood or eucalypt. Its dead spire, blasted by lightning, rises to 247 feet. Its four great limbs, each as big as a sizable tree, elbow outward from the trunk around halfway up, billowing into a thick crown like a mushroom cloud flattening against the sky. Although its trunk isn’t quite so bulky as that of the largest giant, General Sherman, its crown is fuller than the Sherman’s. The President holds nearly two billion leaves.
They are so old because they have survived all the threats that could have killed them. They’re too strong to be knocked over by wind. Their heartwood and bark are infused with tannic acids and other chemicals that protect against fungal rot. Wood-boring beetles hardly faze them. Their thick bark is flame resistant. Ground fires, in fact, are good for sequoia populations, burning away competitors, opening sequoia cones, allowing sequoia seedlings to get started amid the sunlight and nurturing ash. Lightning hurts the big adults but usually doesn’t kill them. So they grow older and bigger across the millennia.
With blessings and permits from the National Park Service, Sillett and his team performed high-altitude metrics on the President. This was part of a larger study, a long-term monitoring project on giant sequoias and coast redwoods called the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. Sillett’s group put a line over the President’s crown, rigged climbing ropes into position (with special protectors for the tree’s cambium), donned harnesses and helmets, and went up.
They measured the trunk at different heights; they measured limbs, branches, and burls; they counted cones; they took core samples using a sterilised borer. Then they fed the numbers through mathematical models informed by additional data from other giant sequoias. That’s how they came to know that the President contains at least 54,000 cubic feet of wood and bark. And that’s how they detected that the old beast, at about the age of 3,200, is still growing quickly. It’s still inhaling great breaths of CO₂ and binding the carbon into cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin in a growing season interrupted by six months of cold and snow. Not bad for an old timer.
Michael (Nick) Nichols made his portrait of the President in snow. Nick & Jim Campbell Spickler, an expert climber and rigger, came up with a plan. With a crew of assistants and climbers drawn heavily from Steve Sillett’s team, they arrived in mid-February, when the snowbanks along the plowed road were 12 feet high. They rigged ropes on the President and on a tall nearby tree, both for human ascent and for raising cameras. They waited through blue skies, slushy conditions, and fog until the weather changed and the snow came again and the moment was right. They got the shot. Actually, there were many individual shots, assembled as you see on the poster. The reason the figure at top seems bigger than the other climbers is that he’s standing forward on one of the great limbs.
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