8500-Year Old Tree Found in Sweden

A news report says that the oldest living tree has been found on the Sweden-Norway border.

The report comes from Leif Kullman, a prominent Swedish paleo-scientist. The story says:

Prof Leif Kullman at Umeå University and colleagues found a cluster of around 20 spruces that are over 8,000 years old. The oldest tree, in Fulu Mountain, Dalarna (“the dales”), was dated by carbon dating at a laboratory in Miami, Florida to 9,550 years old and around it were generations of clones 375, 5,660 and 9,000 years old that have the same genetic makeup. The clones take root each winter as snow pushes low lying branches of the mother tree down to ground level, explains Prof Kullman.

“A new erect stem emerges, and it may lose contact with the mother tree over time.”

The trunks of the mother tree would survive only around 600 years but the trees are able to grow a new one, he adds. The finding is surprising because the spruce tree has been regarded as a relative newcomer in the Swedish mountain region and is thought to have originated 600 miles away in the east.

“Our results have shown the complete opposite, that the spruce is one of the oldest known trees in the mountain range,” says Prof Kullman.

Ten millennia ago, a spruce would have been extremely rare and it is conceivable that the ancient humans who lived there imported the tree, he says.

“Man immigrated close to the receding ice front. We have also found fossil acorns in this area, and people may have taken them with them as they moved over the landscape.”

It had been thought that this region was still in the grip of the ice age but the tree shows it was much warmer, even than today, he says.

“Spruces are the species that can best give us insight about climate change,” he says.

The summers 9,500 years ago were warmer than today, though there has been a rapid recent rise as a result of climate change that means modern climate is rapidly catching up.

The tree probably survived as a result of several factors: the generally cold and dry climate, few forest fires and relatively few humans. Today, however, the nature conservancy authorities are considering putting a fence around the record breaking tree to protect it from trophy hunters.

I can’t tell from this description whether the mother tree will yield a complete chronology; visually it looks smaller than the old bristlecones. If they’re talking about a continuous clone, then I think that there are other examples of such a phenomenon of similar age – I recall seeing something about cactus.

Tornetrask, which we’ve discussed on a number of occasions, is also located in Sweden. Grudd has a new Tornetrask reconstruction, which I’ve requested a digital version of – so far unsuccessfully and without a response.

In a post a couple of years ago, I mentioned what happened to the previous holder of the record as oldest living tree:

To facilitate compilation of a long-term tree-ring chronology for the Wheeler Peak area, one of the larger living bristlecone pines was sectioned. This tree, WPN-114, grew at an altitude of 10,750 feet on the gently sloping crest of a massive lateral moraine of Pleistocene age. The site was relaitvely stable during the lifetime of the tree, the only appreciable change being an accumulation of avalanche-transported debris so that the present ground surface is about 2 ft above the original base of the tree.


52 Comments

  1. Tom Gray
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 9:07 AM | Permalink | Reply

    News reports indicate the root stalk is 9000 years old not the individual trunks

  2. jae
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 9:23 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Maybe they can take a small core of the root stalk and use an electron microscope to study ring width?

  3. Terry
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 9:32 AM | Permalink | Reply

    The summers 9,500 years ago were warmer than today, though there has been a rapid recent rise as a result of climate change that means modern climate is rapidly catching up.

    I’ve noticed recently that any news story that hints at a warm climate in the past always contains a caveat about modern climate change. Although the quote doesn’t expressly state anything about AGW, the average reader will still infer thats what they mean.

  4. Gerald Machnee
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 9:39 AM | Permalink | Reply

    So the 8,000 or 9,000 year figure comes from carbon dating, not a chronology of tree rings.

  5. Barney Frank
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 9:52 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Sounds to me like the mother stem is long since dead as it says “The trunks of the mother tree would survive only around 600 years but the trees are able to grow a new one, he adds.” So if the stems only live 600 years we’re just talking about cloned stems a few hundred years old right? If so then we’re talking about something like creosote bush clones which we already know are 10 or 12 thousand years old. Am I missing something?

  6. Christer
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 9:54 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Near is relative – Distance Dalarna, Fuluberget to Torneträsk is some 1158 km or 1863 miles – at least with Google maps look alike Hitta.se as source. Fuluberget seem to be close to Idre in the very north west of Dalarna, which is in the middle of Sweden. Torneträsk is in the very north of Sweden close to the town Kiruna.

    Greetings from Sweden

  7. Gary
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 9:58 AM | Permalink | Reply

    So imagine you are a ‘climate scientist’ 8,000+ year ago. Temperatures have been warming for awhile. Sea level was 30 meters or so below present day levels. All of a sudden spruce trees start growing on the neighborhood tundra; the glaciers keep melting. What’s happening? World population (already at an outrageous few hundred million) keeps increasing and all those cooking fires continue putting CO2 into the air. The world is going to end! Run for your lives!

    Steve: It’s entirely reasonable to be concerned about the issue of doubled Co2. I don’t think that this rhetoric is very constructive.

  8. richard
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:06 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Incredible. Kullman is always exceedingly lucky with his choice of which bits of wood he dates. I wonder what his evidence is that the old and the modern are the same clone, not just two trees that happen to occupy the same spot.

  9. crosspatch
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:07 AM | Permalink | Reply

    “I’ve noticed recently that any news story that hints at a warm climate in the past always contains a caveat about modern climate change.”

    I have noticed the same thing in reports concerning wood exposed by receding Alpine glaciers. This wood is often carbon dated to 5000 to 9000 years ago meaning that the glaciated valleys and passes were not only ice-free at that time, but had been for long enough to allow the area to become forested. So any time another piece of evidence appears that the climate was much warmer in the past (and for a significant period of time)the obligatory caveat is applied.

  10. AnonyMousey
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:07 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I doubt the roots have rings. The rings in a trunk are a side effect of the annual formation and growth of cells which carry sap under the bark, and the growth of the bark. If you’ve ever excavated a tree you’d know the root structure is much weaker and less organized.

  11. AnonyMousey
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Reply

    The warmest summers in Sweden were over 8,000 years ago?

  12. yorick
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:17 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Yes but, per Gavin, they were only warm at high lattitudes. The rest of the globe was comperably colder. Had to be, otherwise the rhetoric falls apart.

    Steve:
    Again, the rhetorical flourish is unnecessary. There is a Milankowitch reason for a warm NH in the Holocene Optimum so Gavin’s point isn’t as trivial as you make it sound. I think that they are a bit too quick to dismiss the Holocene Optimum but the argument is not as trivial as you’re saying here.

  13. AlanB
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:21 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Christer: How close is the nearest Starbucks?

  14. Glacierman
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:28 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I am pondering the teleconnected powers of this marvel of nature! What potential it must have.

  15. Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:34 AM | Permalink | Reply

    What a beautiful, but lonely looking tree.

    A large part of me is curious as to what it could tell us about the climate of this region, but the rest of me marvels at this survivor, and thinks we should let it be.

  16. Gary
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:34 AM | Permalink | Reply

    #7 – Sorry Steve, just a little levity to make the point that perspective is critical. I assumed you posted this item in part to illustrate that climate has been as warm in the past as it is now, at least in some regions. Back then nothing was known about Milankovitch cycles as being the primary driver for the climate coming out of the last ice age. Available evidence would have pointed to other causes and, had it been possible, caused all sorts of erroneous ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ of natural climate variation. On the internet, nobody knows you’re joking unless you add a smiley, I guess.

  17. Patrick M.
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 10:51 AM | Permalink | Reply

    re 6 (Christer):

    You have your miles and kilometers reversed.

    1863 km = 1158 miles

  18. Larry Huldén size=
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 11:59 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Patrick M. says: You have your miles and kilometers reversed. 1863 km = 1158 miles

    Sweden is not that big. The correct combination is 1158 km = 720 miles

  19. Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 1:04 PM | Permalink | Reply
  20. Christer
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 1:06 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Sorry for mixing km/miles – however it may be due to the fact that Starbucks is not operating here
    ;-)

  21. SteveSadlov
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 2:13 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Not cactus, but, Creosote Bush. In the Mojave. It’s not really cloning, but more of a rhizome like mode. Some of the Creosote clusters are thought to be at least 10K years old.

  22. Tim Ball
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 2:24 PM | Permalink | Reply

    My research of movement of the tree line in central Canada showed the tree line advanced on average 200 km from 1772 to 1927 or a rate of 1 km per year. Although the trees produced seeds and some took root most did not survive the cold winters. The result was that the advance of the tree line was due to root expansion as Kullman discusses. Clearly it is an efficient way of perpetuating the species and adapting to climate change in very harsh conditions.

  23. Dave Dardinger
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 3:33 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I’m sorry, Tim, but there’s no way I’ll believe that tree roots can grow anything near a kilometer a year. 20-50 meters a year is more like it. It may be that most of the growth of outlier tree clumps is primarily from the roots, but the movement of the treeline itself has to be from scattered trees spread via seed, mostly from bird droppings, I’d expect.

  24. Curt
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 3:48 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The summers 9,500 years ago were warmer than today…

    Remember that this was almost half a precession cycle ago, so the earth would have been closer to the sun than average during the NH summer, rather than farther than average as it is now. Presumably the winters would have been colder due to the same effect — if this were the dominant effect. It is the one that the IPCC 4AR paleoclimate chapter acknowledges.

  25. Nisse
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 4:23 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Although I agree with my fellow citizen Christer that Fulufjället is not “located somewhat near [Torneträsk]“, he has got the distance wrong.
    Since Sweden is roughly 1600 km from far north to deep south, half that distance cannot be 1158 km, and Fulufjället is as a matter of fact somewhere in the middle.

    In Google maps is located 814 kilometers (506 miles) from Torneträsk, which is about how far San Fransisco is from Portland – in the very same direction.
    I know everything is big (bigger?) in the US – even Starbucks – but can those cities really be said to be “located somewhat near” each other over there?

    Thanks, though, for a great blog, and for taking this news up about little Sweden.

    Steve: OK on a world scale, this seems “somewhat near”, but in view of your views, I’ve edited to merely say that Tornetrask is in Sweden.

  26. steven mosher
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 4:35 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Isnt it obvious that a tree that lasts this long CANNOT be sensitive to the climate.

    We need to study sensitive proxies. Pussywillow fuzz.

  27. tty
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 4:35 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Although winter temperatures are more difficult to determine than summer temperatures there is evidence that winters were also milder in Sweden during the Holocene optimum. Several plants that are limited by winter temperatures (e. g. ivy) grew much further north than at present.

    Incidentally there is good evidence for warmer temperatures than at present in the southern temperate zone too (e. g. New Zealand and Patagonia), and Steve Emslie’s studies of Adelie Penguin distribution also indicate warmer conditions in the Ross Sea 8,000-5,000 BP.

  28. yorick
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 5:57 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The GRIP core shows very warm temps during the HO in Greenland. Which stands to reason as the sun was more directly over head at that time and Summers were longer.

  29. Armand MacMurray
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 7:00 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Richard asked:

    I wonder what his evidence is that the old and the modern are the same clone, not just two trees that happen to occupy the same spot.

    Since clones would share the same DNA sequence, while trees that grew independently from seeds would not, it should be easy to tell.

  30. Armand MacMurray
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 7:05 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Here’s what I found interesting:

    The oldest tree, … was dated… to 9,550 years old and around it were generations of clones 375, 5,660 and 9,000 years old that have the same genetic makeup. The clones take root each winter as snow pushes low lying branches of the mother tree down to ground level,…

    That might suggest some sort of special weather conditions 375, 5660, and 9000 years ago — perhaps especially snowy weather?

  31. Raven
    Posted Apr 17, 2008 at 7:08 PM | Permalink | Reply

    #26 Pussywillow fuzz == foxtails???

    You really need to make it clearer when you are being serious or sarcastic.

  32. Harry Eagar
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 12:39 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I can recall (from reading my wife’s botany magazines) at least one other individual plant thought to be 10K years old in the US.

    It was an obscure bush in Pennsylvania, and the age was estimated by the time it would have taken for the root system (all one individual) to have reached the extent it did — it was about a mile long. Cannot recall where or what kind of bush.

  33. Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 2:30 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Harry, Could you be referring to the humongous fungus in Crystal Falls, Michigan?
    http://www.crystalfalls.org/humongou.htm

  34. Tom Gray
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 3:14 AM | Permalink | Reply

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pando_(Quaking_Aspen)

    The Wikipedia artilcle describes Quaking Aspen in Utah which is estimated to be 80,000 years old. it also has links at the bottom to other cnadidates for oldest living organism. The parable of the Argonaut’s ship would seem to apply to these claims

  35. Tom Gray
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 3:19 AM | Permalink | Reply

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_long-living_organisms

    This Wikipedia article listhe longest living organism candiates and lists a hucklebeery bush in Pennnsylvania as being 15,000 years old

  36. Bill P
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 10:41 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Quick: a cross-section, Doctor Mann!

    There’s a funny story about a major sampling gaff at the biosphere from over on the tree ring forum.

    http://listserv.arizona.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0606&L=ITRDBFOR&P=R1724&D=0&H=0&I=-3&O=T&T=0

    Re:

    may be that most of the growth of outlier tree clumps is primarily from the roots,

    Dormant roots from previous expansion?

  37. Tim Ball
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 11:02 AM | Permalink | Reply

    #23
    My comments need elaboration. One of the difficulties people have with accepting these numbers is because we still educate people to the idea that change is gradual over long periods of time (uniformitarianism) and that if rapid climate change occurs flora and fauna cannot adapt quickly enough. This is simply incorrect.
    The root growth was the major means of movement at the tree line. As the trees sprouted from these roots they created a roughness factor that led to increased trapping of snow. As Kullman notes the snow depth is important. In this case it provided shelter for seed growth. Without snow cover the new seedlings did not survive the winter. (There is a tree, the Arctic willow, growing north of the tree line but it clings to the ground.) The ability to trap snow is important for expansion and retreat of the tree line. Outlying clumps of small trees will survive as the temperature declines (the tree line is coincident with the 10°C summer isotherm) as long as they can trap snow, once they lose that ability the trees die. Similarly within the tree line if an area is large enough for the snow to be blown away then trees will not encroach.

  38. Sam Urbinto
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 12:11 PM | Permalink | Reply

    That story can’t be correct, it’s from a newspaper in Great Britain.
    :D

    Um, uh, the world population for most of recent human history has been between 800-1000 million. Only since 1850 has it gone over that. If you go back to before 1000 then you get into the less than 500 million numbers.

    2000 BC 35 million
    1000 BC 50 million
    500 BC 100 million
    1 AD 200 million
    1000 AD 310 million
    1750 791 million

    See here for since 1800:

    http://www.climateaudit.org/phpBB3/download/file.php?id=37

    So 9000 years ago, we have 7 million folks running around.

    I wonder how many of them were teleconnected to the tree mentioned above?

  39. Sam Urbinto
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 12:16 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Think about it; you can live for 9000 years!

    But I think being a tree might not be the most exciting thing around. Although I hear that you just might be a good treemometer, so maybe it’s worth it.

  40. James Bailey
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 8:59 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Doesn’t something need to be dead to be able to carbon date it? Living things should be taking in fresh carbon from the atmosphere where the C-14 is made. It is after it quits exchanging Carbon that one can rely on decay to get a time.

    How were they able to get a life that is almost two half-lifes of C-14 when it is still alive?

  41. Eric McFarland
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 9:36 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The tree has apparently refused to comment.

  42. Andrey Levin
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 11:52 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Re#40, Sam Urbinto:

    You can live even forever! From Wiki:

    The jellyfish species Turritopsis nutricula is capable of cycling from a mature adult stage to an immature polyp stage, and back again, indefinitely. This means there is, theoretically, no limit to its life span.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_long-living_organisms

    But you have to be jelly fish…

  43. Jan Pompe
    Posted Apr 18, 2008 at 11:59 PM | Permalink | Reply

    “Doesn’t something need to be dead to be able to carbon date it?”

    No, you can be carbon dated but don’t be surprised if it shows that you are as old as the food you ate a weak ago depending of course on the part of the body the tissue sample is taken from. Once the carbon is captured from the atmosphere it is fixed each years layer in tree rings being deposited on the previous years. It’s one of the ways we calibrate the carbon dating method.

  44. James Bailey
    Posted Apr 19, 2008 at 6:41 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks Jan for clearing that up for me.

  45. Posted Apr 19, 2008 at 4:29 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Fortunately, the tree is well-positioned for future updates:

  46. Andrey Levin
    Posted Apr 20, 2008 at 3:42 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Doesn’t something need to be dead to be able to carbon date it?

    Standard practice to grow soft-skinned vegetables in industrial greenhouses is to burn NG, cool the exhaust, and feed it into controlled environment of greenhouse to reach concentrations of 700-1000 ppm CO2, to be consumed by plants.

    Literally, if one is to carbon-date reap and mouth-moistening hot-house tomato (some of hot-house tomatoes are incredibly tasty, depending on variety and freshness), it will yield that tomato is, actually… couple of millions years old.

  47. Jon-Anders Grannes
    Posted Apr 21, 2008 at 12:09 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Nothern Scandinavia is colder today than in the 1930s.
    During the Medival warm period the treeline was 100 meters higher than today.
    During the Holocene optimum, 8.000-5.000 the treeline was 300 meters higher than today and most of the glaciers in Norway did not exsist!

  48. Jon-Anders Grannes
    Posted Apr 21, 2008 at 8:31 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Here is a Norwegian article about the 9.550 year old tree.
    http://www.forskning.no/artikler/2008/april/179769

    picture:
    http://www.forskning.no/images/2008/april/179773Tre.jpg?size=medium

    It started to grow above the low branches since the 1940s

  49. Ulises
    Posted Apr 22, 2008 at 3:27 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Doesn’t something need to be dead to be able to carbon date it?

    It appears that this was no problem at all; according to original (or close to the original) press release

    Scientists found four “generations” of spruce remains in the form of cones and wood produced from the highest grounds.

    (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-04/src-wol041608.php)

    So the “oldest living tree” is a compound of age-old wood debris and some recent green, said to be genetically identical.

    Identical ?

    everything displayed clear signs that they have the same genetic makeup as the trees above them

    Rather weasely….. Can one expect to extract useful genetic material from dead wood which has been exposed to weathering for some millenia ?

    And: It is easy to clone willows by cutting off branches and sticking them into humid soil, they are made for that. However, it never occurred to me to call the result the same tree as the one I collected the branches from.

    Conclusion : We’d better ignore press releases. There is more than enough garbage around in the peer-reviewed domain.

  50. Geoff Sherrington
    Posted Apr 24, 2008 at 3:59 AM | Permalink | Reply

    RE # 29 Armand MacMurray

    Since clones would share the same DNA sequence, while trees that grew independently from seeds would not, it should be easy to tell.

    Do the “jumping genes” of Barbara McClintock affect this generality?

  51. Geoff Sherrington
    Posted Apr 24, 2008 at 5:49 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Re # 44 Jan Pompe

    But how many years pass between successive tree rings before you can pick up the C isotope ratio difference with REAL confidence?

  52. Posted Apr 28, 2008 at 9:41 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Literally hundreds of news accounts of this spruce discovery have appeared, all of them virtually the same as the April 16 press release from Umea University. Due partly to language problems, and partly I suspect to Kullman’s unfamiliarity with tree morphology, more questions are raised than are answered. The most likely explanation for these trees’ persistence is layering, the rooting of branches usually held to the ground by snow, which can also become erected. These can become detached from the mother tree by decay or breakage. Spruces do this routinely, as do many firs and occasional pines. A mother tree that originated by seed could produce a clone of small bushes or small trees physically separate from each other, and each of these individuals could also layer over time.
    Detached krummholz trees can migrate, as shown by John Marr at Boulder years ago. Wind may dry them out and kill them on the windward side while snow accumulates on the leeward side for them to layer into. But not 1 km. per year!
    Kullman has provided few details and should publish this in a journal requiring careful morphological analysis in addition to the vaguely described genetic analysis. A cone macrofossil seems to have been found, but today’s bushes are unlikely to produce cones, let alone seeds. The photo, repeated ad nauseum, is probably a tree about a meter or two at most tall. It will have few rings. What is interesting is that such old rotting material was in a condition for carbon dating.
    For comparisons with other old clones (like the aspens, creosote bush, and bush huckleberry mentioned) see my 2007 book — The Bristlecone Book: A Natural History of the World’s Oldest Trees (Mountain Press).

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