By Brian Kahn
TORREYA STATE PARK, FLORIDA—Religious scholars have long debated where Noah constructed his floating zoo made of “gopher wood” (Genesis 6:14) and what tree the ark’s gopher wood even came from. Some residents in the Florida Panhandle have an unlikely answer. The place in question is, well, there, and the tree in question is torreya taxifolia. Known locally as gopher wood (or, less Biblically, as stinking cedar for the astringent smell it releases when needles and stems are rolled between the fingers), local legend has it that the tree with its supple yellow wood was used to build the ark that Noah rode out 40 days of floods on, with the menagerie landing, eventually, on Mount Ararat in Turkey.
Now, thousands of years later, the tree faces a new era of ecological violence.
“If we don’t do anything, the trees will go extinct.”
Torreyas have been trapped by geography for millennia, only living in a few ravines that cut across the Apalachicola River Basin. That’s left them vulnerable to the outside disturbances that have come crashing into the Florida Panhandle and now threaten their very survival. Globalization delivered a fungus the tree had no defense against that has been slowly strangling torreyas to death for decades. Then last October, Hurricane Michael rapidly spun up into a Category 4 storm, plowing through Panama City and into the Panhandle. Its path was like a catastrophically precise ecological bomb with the strongest winds passing right over the Apalachicola Basin. The storm toppled canopy trees that either crushed the shaggy torreyas or exposed them to harsh sunlight, which can kill them. The already critically endangered tree is now on life support with just a few hundred individuals left in the wild.
Conservationists are in a race to save the trees that remain. Local volunteers and scientists from the Atlanta Botanical Garden are using a mix of mapping, genome sequencing, and conservation techniques to find trees hearty enough to survive in a world that’s become less hospitable since Biblical times. If successful, their efforts could yield a model for how to protect forests around the world from increasingly formidable threats of climate change and invasive pests.
By Amber Dance
Forests are resilient, but researchers wonder if climate change will outpace their adaptations.
Trees bowed to 45-degree angles and flying leaves crisscrossed the sky as Hurricane Florence ravaged North Carolina’s coast and inland regions in mid-September 2018. The storm, which peaked as a Category 4 hurricane before making landfall near Wilmington as a Category 1, deluged parts of the state with nearly three feet of rain. It stripped the leaves off black walnuts, crape myrtles, and their entwining wisterias, especially on the north and northeast sides of the trees, which bore the full brunt of the 100-plus-mile-per-hour wind gusts. An estimated 1.25 million acres of timber, valued at nearly $70 million, suffered varying degrees of damage.
Whoppers like Florence are a reality that North Carolina—not to mention the rest of the Eastern seaboard and the Caribbean—may have to get used to in the near future. Historically, a given location might only see such destructive hurricanes every few decades. But with global temperatures on the rise, the risk that a fledgling storm system will grow to “major” status, defined as category 3 and above, is likely to climb. Warming oceans mean more water vapor in the air, and that vapor is what fuels the storms. “One of the signals that we expect from climate change is that the strongest hurricanes will get stronger,” says Gary Lackmann, an atmospheric scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
What does that mean for trees? The scene in the woods after Florence was one of seeming devastation. In every direction, trees, branches, and brush littered the ground. Yet just a few weeks after the storm, the stripped trees sprouted fresh leaves and flowers. It may have been autumn, but the trees already had leaf and flower buds in waiting for the upcoming spring, explains Jim Slye, assistant regional forester with the state forest service in Goldsboro. Re-leafing after storms helps keep the trees’ circulation going, and flowering allows trees to drop seeds in case they end up succumbing to storm damage. The trees won’t necessarily die, though; tree ring studies make it clear that many survived past storms.
By Martha Quillin
Days of wind and rain snapped or toppled trees throughout the Croatan National Forest, both near the NC coast. Among the trees felled were long leaf pines that were home to some of the forests’ most celebrated residents: endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Hurricane Florence, one of the costliest storms ever to hit the U.S., damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes when it made landfall in September. Not all of them belonged to humans.
Days of wind and torrential rain snapped or toppled trees throughout the Croatan National Forest and on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, both near the coast. Among the trees felled were long leaf pines that were home to some of the forests’ most celebrated residents: endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The 160,000-acre forest, stretching across Carteret, Jones and Craven counties, is home to about 112 “clusters” of the little black-and-white birds. A cluster usually consists of a mating pair and up to four of the previous year’s offspring. Researchers believe the Croatan has about 300 individual birds, making it the largest site that far east and west. There are an estimated 16,250 red-cockaded woodpeckers total across 11 states, with the largest population being on Fort Bragg.