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Forest Giant: The sequoias of the Sierra Nevada


Giant sequoias live at high elevations, enduring cold, heavy snows, lightning strikes—and growing bulky and strong, though not so tall as coast redwoods. This individual, the President, is the second most massive tree known on Earth. Photo: Michael Nichols/National Geographic
Giant sequoias live at high elevations, enduring cold, heavy snows, lightning strikes—and growing bulky and strong, though not so tall as coast redwoods. This individual, the President, is the second most massive tree known on Earth. Photo: Michael Nichols/National Geographic

February 5, 2013 — A tree-climbing scientist and his team have learned surprising new facts about giant sequoias by measuring them inch by inch.

The living crown (this one atop the General Sherman, at center) was once a distant mystery. Scientist Steve Sillett’s new arboreal studies have yielded revelations, including this: These old trees are still growing fast. Michael Nichols/National Geographic
The living crown (this one atop the General Sherman, at center) was once a distant mystery. Scientist Steve Sillett’s new arboreal studies have yielded revelations, including this: These old trees are still growing fast. Michael Nichols/National Geographic

The following is an excerpt from the December issue of National Geographic Magazine:

It’s not quite the largest tree on Earth. It’s the second largest. 

Recent 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 regnans in 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, the General Sherman, its crown is fuller than the Sherman’s. The President holds nearly two billion leaves.

Trees grow tall and wide-crowned as a measure of competition with other trees, racing upward, reaching outward for sunlight and water. And a tree doesn’t stop getting larger—as a terrestrial mammal does, or a bird, their size constrained by gravity—once it’s sexually mature.

Read the full article in the December issue of National Geographic magazine.
Read the full article in the December issue of National Geographic magazine.

A tree too is constrained by gravity, but not in the same way as a condor or a giraffe. It doesn’t need to locomote, and it fortifies its structure by continually adding more wood. 

Given the constant imperative of seeking resources from the sky and the soil, and with sufficient time, a tree can become huge and then keep growing. Giant sequoias are gigantic because they are very, very old.

Read the full article here

The images provided are from the December issue of National Geographic Magazine. You can find more in National Geographic's photo gallery.

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