SITKA SPRUCES


It’s only a few hundred yards.  The air feels the same, the elevation barely changes, and the ground feels the same.  To any human hiking west, towards the ocean, the woods and the trees are the same.

But they aren’t.

In this short distance, giant Douglas Firs in the old growth Siuslaw National Forest give way to Sitka Spruce, equally large, so much so that not far north of me is one 550 years old, 15 meters, (50 ft) in diameter, and nearly 50 meters (160 ft) in circumference, 70 meters (230 ft) tall.  A kilometer further inland—maybe only a few hundred meters—there are no Sitkas.

By "Big Tree," 550 years old.  The cave underneath once had a log from a fallen tree, that helped this tree grow.  It was called a "nurse log."

By “Big Tree,” 550 years old. The cave underneath once had a log from a fallen tree, that helped this tree grow. It was called a “nurse log.”

In this transitional zone, there are slight changes in the atmosphere and the soil sufficient to change the climate of the forest enough, allowing one type of tree to thrive and to displace another.  I don’t notice it, but the trees do.  Like the Redwoods south of here in northern California, Sitka Spruce can live only a few miles from the coast.  Any further inland, and the air, the soil, everything changes so that these trees can’t survive, but others can.

It’s a lesson we need to learn.  We are more like these trees than we think.

 

Douglas Fir, with 1.3 meter (4 foot) walking stick for comparison.

Douglas Fir, with 1.3 meter (4 foot) walking stick for comparison.

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Indeed, when one looks at what the human body can tolerate, our cells, too, live in a microclimate that is just right.  Drop the partial pressure of oxygen in the air suddenly by a third, and we die. Change the sodium concentration in our blood 15%, and we are in trouble.  Change the potassium 30%, we die.  Change the calcium 10%, and we can’t think clearly.  Put 50 cc blood suddenly in our head, outside the dura mater, and we die.  Put a few cc in the medulla, and we die.  Change our body temperature 4 C in either direction, and we die.

We are like Sitka Spruce.  Given the ideal climate, we thrive.  Change that climate too much, and we can’t.

Let’s think about the planet as a whole.  We are dependent not only upon the lower portion of the atmosphere but upon the upper portion of the soil, plant life, and pollinators, most of which we call bees.  I wonder if that is taught in Common Core.  It should be.  We think trees are immobile.  So are we, when we consider our habitable zone not the distance from the ocean, but the Earth itself.  If the planet is destroyed, I am as immobile as a Sitka Spruce.

Change the acidity of the ocean 25%, warm it just 1 C. (1.8 F.), and coral bleaches and dies.  Oh, that has already happened.  The ocean’s pH has fallen by 0.1 unit.  To most, this is meaningless, but do the math, yes, the nerdy math, by taking the negative log [H+], and you will understand I am right.  Increase the average monthly temperature 1 C., only one-third a per cent, and we call it warm.  Is every day 1 C. warmer?  No.  Some days might be even cooler, maybe 5 C.  Increase the change to plus 2 C. and we call it a hot month.  Change it 3 C., and we have record warmth.  One per cent increase in temperature is record warmth.  In Tucson, the annual change since 1980 has been about 1.5 C (2.7 F). I noticed it 25 years ago. People like warm winters, even when it is 90 in February and winter rainfall is a third of what it once was.  I am not a Sitka Spruce.  I moved. The desert plants cannot move.  If they can adapt, they stay; if not, they die.  We’ve seen a lot of death in the Sonoran Desert.

Decrease rain 10%, and it’s a dry year.  Decrease it 20%, and we are in drought.    Decrease it 30%, which has happened in Tucson for the last decade, and you have…..silence.  Nature doesn’t say right or wrong, only allows organisms adaptable to local conditions.  Change the conditions, change the organisms.  The desert is still there but is no longer the same.

Our habitat is a small planet in a perfect orbit around the right star.  We thrive.  Or we used to, before several things happened.  We became too plentiful, and our resource use is unsustainable.  When there are too many people, governing becomes more difficult and less gets done.   We aren’t acting.  The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is going to melt, and sea rise will eventually increase 3 meters, or 10 feet.  There goes Pacific Islands, Bangladesh….and Florida.

The Chambers of Commerce are going to have a hard time with the last.

Nature isn’t out to kill us.  Nature, biology, physics, and chemistry have no conscience.  They are.  Change the habitat, and Sitka Spruces—or humans—will disappear. The oceans are rising; there is absolutely no doubt about that:  the two causes are glacial melt and expansion of warm water.  No political rhetoric will change that fact, nor will any change the fact that increasing carbon dioxide will acidify the oceans.  It already has.  The Earth will stay in heat balance, regardless what happens in Brussels, Washington, Moscow, or Beijing.  If there is more heat, it will be balanced by storms, for a hurricane is a heat exchanger.  The Tea Party may say it isn’t happening, but they have no evidence.  Nature doesn’t hear “hoax;” changes have consequences.  We know some; we don’t know all.

Sitka Spruces use soil and air.  Eventually, they succumb, to root rot, to wind, and perhaps to excessive rain on certain slopes. They give back during their life, sequestering carbon and producing oxygen.  When they die and fall to the forest floor, they are recycled into new trees.  For thousands of years, they have born, lived, and died, in tune with their environment.  Walk among these giant trees, and you see all parts of the life cycle.  It is a cathedral of life, for from a dead tree springs new life.

It is the way of the world that was set into motion.  It is fair to argue what set the world into motion.  I happen to believe in The Big Bang and evolution.  To me, the evidence is compelling.

It is neither fair nor right to argue that changing the conditions of the world will not affect what life forms will exist.  It will; it has. Denial is short-sighted, stupid, and sad, not just what we have done, but that we never tried to fix it.  We didn’t try and fail.  We didn’t even try.

Nature, however, will not judge.  There will be only consequences.  They are already here.

 

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Nurse log that actually never died. Not only do the trees (the 3 on the right, although the center is did) get their nutrients from the downed tree, they were original branches. I have never seen this before.

Douglas Fir on the right; The Sisters in the distance.  Oregon Coastal Range, but 30 straight line miles (50 km) from the ocean.

Douglas Fir on the right; The Sisters in the distance. Oregon Coastal Range, but 30 straight line miles (50 km) from the ocean.

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Another example of the size of a Douglas Fir. Notice the deep grooves in the bark. This tree probably germinated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth of England–the first one (1558-1603).

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