Bristlecone pines are the oldest trees on Earth. The oldest, Methuselah, has lived more than 4,800 years.
From their perch atop the White Mountains at California's eastern edge, the bristlecones have survived as entire human civilizations have arisen and disappeared.
But there's a new threat to the bristlecones' existence, a globe-spanning phenomenon more menacing than anything they've faced in thousands of years.
The White Mountains are some of the most arid and remote peaks in the world. The towering Sierra Nevada range to the west blocks moisture before it can reach the Whites and the Mojave Desert beyond them.
This is a perfect place for the bristlecones. They like things dry and frigid.
Near the tree line, where almost nothing else can grow, they wrap their roots around dolemite boulders. Adversity assures their longevity.
At this altitude, the bristlecones are less prone to drought stress and natural predators such as beetles and fungi.
Matthew Salzer, a research associate at the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, studies the impact of climate on bristlecone pines. Their rings hold millennia of climate data.
The trees all but shut down their growth in cold, dry years, roaring back to life when temperatures warm.
Climate change is spurring an unprecedented period of growth on the peaks of the White Mountains.
"The reason these trees live for so long is that they’re very conservative in their growth," Salzer said. "Now that they’re not under adversity, it's a good thing for the wood."
But the short-term good news for the trees could be disastrous in the long term.
As temperatures warm, the trees are crawling up the mountains to find the cool temperatures and isolation they crave.
At the same time, the habitat for predators and other competition is shifting upward, chasing the bristlecones up the slopes.
"They’re already moving up the slope. We can see that," Salzer said. "There’s juvenile trees coming nearer to the tree line."
A prolonged period of warming would leave the bristlecones trapped on the summits of the White Mountains with nowhere to go.
Original Score by
Sage Price (Also Axe Wielding)
Special Thanks To
The Bristlecone Manor Motel