Field of Science

Oldest known tree

I was feeling a bit meloncholy this morning and I could not exactly figure out why. Was it the end of a sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating year, or the realization that the celestial cambium has added another growth ring, and we along with it are another year older. Was it because Janice Joplin was singing Me and Bobby McGee on the radio? And then quite by chance while looking for one thing (the world's first forest) I found another.

A Norway spruce (growing in Sweden) has been identified as the oldest tree on Earth. Growing at a high latitude this is not the towering giant you might expect; it barely tops 13 feet tall. This part of the tree is not that old, and you can't find a set of growth rings you can count, but the woody root stock has been carbon dated to nearly 10,000 years old. That means this tree took root just about the time the Pleistocene glaciers were pulling back and uncovering this area.

10,000 years makes this tree the oldest living individual organism on Earth. A very impressive record, and somehow knowing this has cheered me up. Although this spruce grows in a tough area, it's primary problem is winter and winds. At this latitude and in such a sparse community, the most common environmental mishaps that threaten big, old trees (lightening, fire) are relatively rare. So by growing slow and low, it has survived millenia.

It's quite likely some clones have lived longer, much longer, but it is the clone that survives, not the individual organism. Because they reproduce asexually, while genetically the same, the members of a clone are not the origninal organism at all, but copies, so the genotype persists not the individuals. Some unicellular organisms may form clones millions of years old, but at what point have enough random changes been accumulated in different copy lineages of the originial genotype that we would judge them different organisms? I have no idea.

There are aspen and sagebrush clones that are estimated to be around 10,000 years old, but no part of the original organism persists, just the genotype. So for now a Swedish Norway spruce holds the longevity record.

Darwin Bicentennial Special Edition

In honor of the bicentennial of Darwin's Origin of Species the Botanical Society of America is publishing a special issue of the American Journal of Botany, and you can get a FREE historial article entitled "The meaning of Darwin's "abominable mystery". Everyone usually interprets this to mean the evolutionay ancestry of flowering plants was a mystery with respect to their ancestry, and other than it being clear flowering plants had a common ancestry with gymnosperms, it must be admitted that this remains an area of active hypothesis formation. But this was not Darwin's concern.

Ned Friedman clarifies that Darwin was referring to the sudden appearance of considerable flowering plant diversity in the fossil record. Darwin would have been seen this as less of a problem if the fossil record were as well known 150 years ago as it is today, but that's why we do research, to learn things. The clarification is based in part upon Darwin's own explanation of the problem in a letter Joseph Hooker written in 1879 (facsimile included).

So treat yourself to a scientific present! And maybe commit yourself to a new year's resolution to reduce your plant blindness, a common scientific affliction.

Frightfully Beautiful Destruction

This morning dawned to the frightfully beautiful destruction of an ice storm here in Lincolnland. No one can deny the beauty of a glistening, glassy, but very brittle world. It's a wonderland of light with a clacking and cracklely sound. But the destruction wrought by this beautiful sight is so very sad for us tree people. We get emotionally invested in nurturing a tree into an aesthetic component of our gardens and lawns, and the destruction of trees is a real loss not the least of all because a tree that has grown for many years cannot just be replaced. The value and beauty added by time has been lost.

While trees are nearly immortal, they are unfortunately sessile behemoths of biomass and beauty and they cannot escape any environmental ravages that engulf them. Trees have perpetually juvenile tissues, meristems, and they essentially grow a new tree each year around and on top of the old ones.

But no matter how big or how small, wood, that remarkable stuff that trees build as both a vascular and support system, is only so strong. Wood is capable of withstanding some pretty remarkable loads, but the sudden application of a half-inch of ice can stress the support system beyond the breaking point.

Although not a large tree, this quite handsome Japanese maple was shattered beyond any hope of repair. All but one limb was ripped off by the icy weight. This tree had already survived the ravages of yard rats (squirrels), who gnawed off enough bark to nearly girdle the tree. And years later it survived a very late hard freeze that killed all the new foliage and limb growth. But it didn't escape the ice. This fall was its swan song, but who knew what was to befall it.
Decorum and decency, concepts mostly absent from the web, prevent me from posting an image of this maple's dismembered body. RIP Acer japonicum.

350? And I thought the answer was 42.

42 was the answer to the ultimate question (What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything else?). But 350 turns out to be a very important answer (in parts per million) to the question of how much carbon dioxide can be put into the atmosphere before its impact on climate seriously affects human civilization? It doesn't help that human activities have already pushed the CO2 concentration to 385 ppm, so not only must we stop emissions, they must be reduced. And of course human energy demands are not likely to decrease anytime soon.

This article discusses the concept of a tipping point. Many systems will resist change such that factors that influence them seem to only make small incremental changes year by year causing some people to question what all the excitment is about. However, when you reach a certain critical level, the change suddenly accelerates. The melting of Arctic sea ice during the summer has been increasing but by very small amounts as each succeeding year became the warmest year on record. This year the ice melted a lot, and if this is a trend, then watch out baby! That land you own in central Florida may be the next coastal property.

What is even more alarming is when a long-term study of tree mortality suggests a similar tipping point may exist for tropical forests. Trees, those behemoths of biomass, are repositories of CO2. When trees die, their decomposition releases all that CO2. This also happens when humans cut and burn the forest. Tree mortality increases as the average temperature increases probably because while respiration increases as the temperature increases, photosynthesis begins to decline. When respiration exceeds photosynthesis, these woody storehouses of CO2 begin literally respire themselves to death. This is another tipping point system. And if it happens, tropical forests could begin to literally fall apart in a matter of decades releasing all that carbon dioxide which would only accelerate the temperature increase in a positive feedback loop. A grassland would replace the forest, and during occasional or seasonal droughts, grasses are subject to burning. A grassland will have a much smaller biomass than a forest.

If these tipping point scenarios have are true, and the available data certainly suggests they are possible, then the sooner we act the better. Of course those whose depend upon the status quo are actively trying to prevent such actions by arguing the non-existence of tipping points. Explaining the idea of a tipping point to people is critical to motivate people to support and seek changes.

Let's not even consider what will happen to the farm belt in Lincolnland if climate change continues along the predicted trajectory, but suffice it to say, it's ugly.

Botanical stocking stuffer

Here's a gift idea for that botanical geek in your family. A deck of cards illustrating plant families with a Linnaeus on the back. These were especially made in honor of Linnaeus' 300th anniversary by the Chelsea Physic Garden, which was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries so apprentices could learn to identify medicinal plants. It's only been open to the public for the last few decades. I had to buy a deck when I visited this last May.

Appropriately enough the garden is located at 66 Royal Hospital Road. It's not very big actually, but is crammed full with over 5000 species of plants all labelled. Many are arranged taxonomically; others are grouped medically. I was going to include an image, but they have gone missing.

Is is unAmerican to dislike shopping malls?

I like getting gifts for friends and family, and I don't mind spending money, but I have never liked shopping as a leisure activity. And I especially do not like malls. The reason for this is that I have nearly always been a shopper of necessity. When I need something, I go and buy it. Said and done. But the fundamental concept of malls is to prevent you from efficiently shopping for anything. Instead malls seek to force you to wander about, deal with distracting displays, and mobs of people.

The only mall stores I ever shop in have their own access to the outside. That way I never have to actually enter the mall. Generally I average about two visits to mall stores a year, an average I'm trying to improve on. Of course, I also usually do not drive on a daily basis, and all of the shopping malls are too far away (how fortunate!) for a pedestrian to visit, and most have no means for access afoot anyways surrounded as they are by a wasteland of asphalt upon which an unregulated demolition derby is being played. It would be safer to play on the railroad tracks than try to walk across such an area.

Generally I like smaller stores, especially those whose owners and employees I know. So I do most of my shopping on those rare instances when I am so moved in shops in the immediate vicinity of my place of employment.

Now this is the funny thing. It's not the crowds of people that produce my anti-mall attitude. I love 3d world markets and can wander in them for hours. So many exotic things I'd like to have. And maybe that's the essence of it. Nearly all of the wares on so prominent display in shopping malls consist of nothing whatever I'd ever want. Rather than swooning or drooling or coveting these things, I find myself completely disinterested. I doubt that I can find any connection at all with people who cheerfully and willingly shop the malls.

'Tis the season to be jolly, so I shall not risk the mauling of my excellent post-semester attitude by doing anything foolish.

Surely my attitude must be unAmerican. But so far at least, my freedom to not shop at malls has remained inviolate. For this I greatly thank the founding fathers.

A Very Clever Political Ploy

Having spent a 30+ year career at a great public institution of higher learning I have learned the good points and the bad points about public higher education. During good times, institutes of higher learning are one of the last to gain support, and during bad times they always face cuts.

But the clever ploy initiated here in Lincolnland is a marvel to behold. A couple of decades ago, revenues from the state provided nearly two-thirds of the cost of higher education. It was important to educate your citizens. But then the political leaders of our great state figured out that if you just withheld support, the institutes of higher learning would be forced to cover the difference by raising tuition.

Now of course the increase in tuition had to cover two things, real increases in the cost of education, including new unfunded mandates from the state, and difference between the former level of support and a lower level of support. This means that tuition has gone up much faster than the cost of living because not only has the cost gone up but the state support has gone down.

Presently the state supplies less than one-fourth of the cost of attending our institution. In two decades the state has reduced their support from two-thirds to less than one-fourth. And this cost has been transferred to the citizens of this state who send their kids or pay their way to attend our colleges and universities.

Now here is the clever part. Imagine that the govenor or some other major state official came out and said, "We're going to gradually cut our support of higher education form 66% to less than 25% and transfer that cost to the students and parents." Well, you can imagine the out cry! But no one ever said such a thing, they just gradually did it. And then the same guys who make this decision with every state budget they approve have the gall to dun the institutes of higher learning for tuition increases that out pace increases in the cost of living!

Yes, the blame for increased tuition, fees, and other costs is laid on the colleges and universities. If they only could get those lazy faculty to teach more. Talk about clever. Not only do they not take responsibility, they actually actively blame someone else. We had a president who laid out the numbers for anyone who wanted them, and as you may guess, he didn't last long after he began getting people to point their fingers at the legislature.

Maybe someday people of this state will understand that the public part of their state institutes of higher learning is getting smaller year by year. For years now we have referred to ourselves as a state assisted insitution rather than a state supported institution. And now economic conditions will result in a new round of budget cuts and withheld state support, so the cycle will continue.