Yosemite has some of the biggest and oldest trees in the world.
They have survived wars, drought, storms, snow, fires, floods, and humankind (so far). Almost all of these massive trees have survived numerous lightning strikes.
For instance, this Giant Sequoia below (dubbed the Grizzly Giant) once survived 6 different lightning strikes just in one storm. It may look like a crooked photo of the tree, but in actuality the tree has a natural lean where it extends 17.5 feet south and 5.5 feet west. Also, its largest branch – which is bigger in diameter than most of the trees in the National Park (6 feet) – is on the south side and adds to the lean. It is the largest tree in Yosemite and is believed to be the 5th largest tree IN THE WORLD. The Grizzly Giant weighs an incredible 2 million pounds and is 209 feet tall. The circumference is 96.5 feet and the diameter of the base is 34.7 feet. This gigantic tree is thoughts to be 2700 years old – the oldest known sequoia tree. Sequoias are among the oldest known organisms on Earth.
Those colorful dots are people.
When you finally wrap your head around how big and old these trees really are (I have no idea how long this takes; I still am not able to fully process this information) you are able to think about other things. For example, you get realize that trees that weigh over 1 million pounds have fallen.
If a 2 million pound tree that is over 200 feet tall and 30 feet wide falls and no one is around, will it make a noise? Hell yeah! Sometimes these behemoths fall. Just seeing one that has fallen is a transcendental experience. It’s surreal to see a tree that is so huge and so tall; yet, its whole existence and its whole life and journey and unattainable mass is there right next to you. I believe it must feel comparable to seeing a dead blue whale on a beach. That massive creature that has had a life that you know practically nothing about is so close to you. It doesn’t feel right to see such a majestic creature in that form. It’s almost like seeing a fallen skyscraper in the city. It doesn’t belong there. But, it is an aspect of the natural order of life and it happens from time to time.
Upon closer inspection though, the amount of trees that are fallen and dying is increasing greatly and at an unprecedented level.
One of the main causes is drought. Drought is affecting all of California and most of the United States. We are using up our water faster than it can be replenished. For instance, this is the South Fork Eel River. These bridges were built at this height because of the preexisting river level. Currently though, the river trickles down and is only a few inches deep in many places. This whole rocky area you see used to be covered by water – everywhere the tire tracks and small bushes are was underwater by multiple feet. If you were here like I was or able to look at this photo at full resolution, you’d see that the old riverbank was about 3-4 meters (10-13 feet) higher than the current trickle.
Of the water that is not set aside for environmental purposes, 78% is used by agriculture and the remaining 22% is urban/residential.
(Sources: PPIC, usgs.gov)
Then right after this sign reading “Build Water Storage NOW” came this:
The agricultural community is finding that they too are running out of accessible water (see photo). They are now having to drill deeper, more dangerous, and more expensive wells to access the water. One farmer told me that he had to dig a well that was just 150 feet deeper than his previous well, but it cost him $275,000 USD to do it.
Yosemite gets most of its water from a source different than many parts of the United States: snowpack. The amount of snowpack is determined by the water fall and the entire water cycle. Yosemite is its own microcosm; it has its own water source that feeds everything. This is the lifeblood of Yosemite.
The snowpack is basically the amount of snow that falls on the rocks and massive walls of Yosemite and stays on these elevated areas throughout winter. It melts throughout the year, supplying a steady stream of water to Yosemite’s rivers.
During 2015, the snowpack Yosemite got was 2% of what it SHOULD GET to feed the valley and what it has gotten in years past. It has been steadily decreasing, but 2015 is the lowest year on record… ever. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is at its lowest level in 500 years. This has caused numerous changes. Many of the smaller creeks have dried up and the lakes are multiple METERS lower than their normal levels. Pictured here is the basin at the bottom of Bridalveil falls. This was taken at the height of summer, when water should still be rushing furiously throughout the valley. Instead, it was gently flowing and the basin is about 1.5 meters lower than it should be (see the markings on the wall).
2% of what’s needed means that there will be a massive die out because every living thing needs water in some capacity. This historic drought will not immediately kill all the trees and animals, but it does exact most of the damage and stress that they feel.
Adding to the miniscule snowpack, Yosemite received minimal rainfall, causing Yosemite Falls to dry up in September, months before it usually does. The falls is a necessary source of water to the Valley. The act of it drying up will increase the negative effects of the drought. I shot this photo during the peak of summer, when the falls is usually flowing with intense force. As you can see, the falls is more of a trickle at the time of this photo. The remnants of the domain of this once powerful falls can be seen in the lichen that inhabit what is known as the “splash zone.” Lichens are a combination of algae and moss. Here they are dormant – they will await the life-supplying water of Yosemite Falls to return.
But will the return of the falls be enough to save the rest of the fauna at Yosemite? Specialists, park rangers, and foresters say that it’s not enough. The early absence of water is already causing profound stress to the fauna and increasing the effect of other issues.
Think of the trees and plants as a big family that has been using water from the city and always had a constant supply. However, they’ve been cut off from their sources of water and now they can only use the water they have saved in their rainwater catchment.
The trees are sharing limited water that they get from rain. All the trees and plants are competing for the water. Just like the family in the scenario, this would cause intense stress, and many members of the family would die or struggle to survive. The exacerbated stress is so extreme that it in turn is causing a massive die out.
To the untrained observer, everything is going as it should. Yosemite is as beautiful as ever. There are numerous colours in the vegetation and the gargantuan trees are living proof of the vitality of the national park.
However, once one looks around they can see that there is a current pervasive die out. One of the characteristics of this die out is the frequent viewing of dead trees lying on the ground (previous photo). Like giants from another world, they seem out of place on the ground and it seems irreverent for their lives to end in such a way. Another characteristic of this die out is the strange sight of dead trees still standing. Known as “ghost trees,” these dead trees that have lost all their branches and leaves are just dead trunks standing up. Being among them is an eerie feeling.
Visitors may say, “Yes that’s bad, but at least Yosemite is full of different beautiful fall colour”. This may actually be the most troubling sign that everything in Yosemite is not as it should be. Fall colours inherently are a beautiful sight and a wonderful facet of the changing seasons. The issue is not the fall colours; rather, the time at which they are seen. There are numerous red, orange, and yellow trees that exist in seasons OTHER than fall.
These so-called “red trees” seen other than in fall (pictured) are dead trees that are still standing. The tree has not gotten enough water through its root system and has died standing up. The branches and leaves are still there.
These trees are reminiscent of some of the dead cast bodies found at Vesuvius in Pompeii. [These bodies are entombed in ash and remain in their human form at the time of death. Details such as facial emotions and body positions can still be seen.] The trees’ lives are preserved, but it is evident that they are dead.
At the time, I believed these trees to be simply a byproduct of a huge lack of water. However, upon further research, I found that there is an additional factor that is the final nail in the coffin for these trees.
The factor is small in size, but becoming large in numbers. It is the bark beetle. Bark beetles are able to burrow into and kill already weakened and stressed trees.
And they have.
Bark beetles are native to the California’s woodlands, and flourish almost every time there is a large-scale drought like the current one. Bark beetles bore into cedar, pine and fir trees, and lay their eggs inside. Healthy trees fight back against the attack by flooding the beetles’ egg areas with sap. The sap pushes the beetles and their larva out of the bark.
Distressed trees, however, cannot spare enough sap to dislodge the pests. And as you read earlier, the lack of water is the ubiquitous cause of stress.
Some trees die from girdling – the insects bore roles of adjacent holes underneath the bark that eventually removed an entire strip of bark around the circumference of the tree. Other trees give in to a fungus the beetles carry that grows into the sapwood and prohibits moisture and water from moving up the trunk. The fungus can be spotted by the telltale blue stains on the wood.
Again, every red tree is a dead tree. And the U.S. Forest Service asserts that there are 12.5 million of them in California as of April 2015.
The Forest Service examined over 8.2 million acres of California forest in April and found dead trees on 1 million of these acres. The dead trees amount to the size of Rhode Island. This is the worst bark damage California and Yosemite has seen.
Within the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fire has been a necessary part of the ecosystem for thousands of years. The flora and fauna have become reliant on the fire for seed dispersal and for an opportunity to thrive.
With that said, the typical forest fire would just burn the groundcover and dead trees and other low tinder. The taller trees would have enough water to resist the forest fires and remain standing after the fire terminates.
This is why drought is a multi-tiered problem. Drier trees and more dead trees = more tinder to burn. This issue coupled with the increasing presence and destruction of the bark beetles, and then the easy-to-burn deadwood doubles. The main concern for forestry officials is not the fact that millions of trees are dying, it’s that all the dry, rotting wood will be easily combustible fuel for wildfires. This increase of firewood adds to the size of the fire and its ability to spread.
The larger and hotter the fire, the more trees will burn. The less water inside the trees, and the less ability the tree has to fight off the fire. If the tree cannot fight off the fire and succumbs to the inferno, it becomes more fuel for the fire and helps the fire grow.
The firefighters try to end the fire with water, and end up using lots of water that has to be taken from an already low water source in the area. This is turn increases the drought which will increase the magnitude of the forest fires.
The millions of dead trees are basically firewood just waiting to ignite. In summer heat, they could, and have, gone up in flames.
The dying forests will wreak havoc on the ecosystems and communities that they are an integral part of. Animals that live make their habitat in the trees and foliage will have to go elsewhere. Without roots to stabilise soil, the forest’s groundcover erodes. The landscape will immediately be affected, and the water supply, path, and flow will also suffer large-scale changes.
Climate scientists posit that trees are a necessary source of carbon absorption (in the form of carbon dioxide) and massive amounts of dead forest point to more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and an increased Earthen temperature. This in turn becomes a positive feedback loop and the increased temperatures cause less water absorption and the cycle keeps changing.
Thank you for following along and reading my photo series. 2500 words later and we reach the end (for now). Hopefully you learned something along the way and hopefully some questions arose.
**Thank you to all those new people who read this story and thank you to all those who have shared this story and gotten more people to read.
(Sources: Yosemite Park Engineer, Yosemite Park Rangers, and Yosemite guidebooks).