Cutting Down the Oldest Living Tree in the World

Many Americans of a certain age will recall an American radio commentator, called Paul Harvey, who ran ironic commentaries entitled "The End of the Story". They were short segments leading you to expect one answer and Harvey’s closing comment explaining what happened would reverse the field altogether. I once heard a commentary on dendrochronology, in which Harvey reported how a dendrochronologist had cut down and killed the oldest living tree in the world. In my pre-blog days, when I was researching bristlecones, I came across the academic account of this event – which I summarize here.

The cutting down of the oldest tree in the world has the following academic reference: Curry, D.R., 1965. "An Ancient Bristlecone Pine Stand in Eastern Nevada", Ecology, 46(4), 564-566. Curry, writing from the Department of Geography of the University of North Carolina, reported that, in 1963 and 1964, during studies of Little Ice Age glaciation and nivation in the mountains of southwestern U.S., a number of stands of bristlecone pine were encountered, including a previously unstudied stand at Wheeler Peak in east Nevada [gazetteeer location: 38.9861N; Longitude: -114.312].

Curry reported that the stand was located on the NE face of the mountain, at the mouth of a deep glacial cirque. It covered about 300 acres ranging in altitude from 9500′ to the upper tree limit of 11,000′. Bristlecone and Engelmann spruce were codominant in the stand, with limber pine an associate. Laterally it graded "abruptly" into the typical cubalpine forest of the Snake Range in which spruce and limber pine were codominant and bristlecone was conspicuously absent. The nearest neighboring bristlecone was 6 km to the south. Some of the uppermost bristlecones wre on quartzite bedrock, but most were on morainal deposits and talus derived from bedrock. The region was described as semiarid; the nearest weather station, Lehman Caves National Monument, about 4 miles east and 3000 ft lower, had a mean annual rainfall of 12.8 " (20 years to 1964).

Curry described the cutting down of the oldest living tree in the world as follows:

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 zite 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.

WPN-114 had a dead crown 17 ft high, a living shoot 11 ft high and a 252-inch circumferfence 18 inches above the ground. The trunk was of the massive slab type (Schulman 1958). Bark was present along a single 14-inch wide north-facing strip. Lateral dieback had left 92% of the circumference devoid of bark. The south-facing (uphill) side of the tree had been so deeply eroded that the pith was missing below a point 76 inches above the ground (100 inches above the original base).

A horizontal slab from the interval 18-30 inches above the ground and a smaller piece including the pith 76 inches above the ground were cut from the tree and a smoothly finished 2-piece transverse section was prepared….The derived radius measured 2280 mm to the pith, 100 inches above the original base and encompasses 4844 measured rings…it may be tentatively concluded that WPN-114 begain growing about 4,900 years ago.

I’ve looked for the measurements from Wheeler Peak at the World Data Center for Paleoclimatology. While many of the early bristlecone measurements were archived and can be retrieved from WDCP (and I wish that Hughes would archive his updated bristlecone measurements), ironically the measurements from Wheeler Peak have never been archived. Perhaps the measurements are buried somewhere at the University of North Carolina. Otherwise, the oldest living tree in the world was cut down, measured and then the measurements were lost. (For good order’s sake, I will inquire further. Maybe Crowley’s "lost" data will turn up with them.) As Paul Harvey used to say: And that, my friends, is the end of the story.


  1. Bob Oliver
    Posted Jan 3, 2006 at 9:52 AM | Permalink

    It is “The rest of the story”

  2. Doug L
    Posted Jan 3, 2006 at 10:38 AM | Permalink

    The world’s oldest bristlecone would turn into a tender young bamboo shoot if it’s roots absorbed all the geriatric products pitched by Paul Harvey! 🙂

  3. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jan 3, 2006 at 11:07 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the links.

    Once again, the additional irony that I’m drawing attention to is the missing data. (I understand about 40 years ago). But at least archive the data. What if Lonnie Thompson’s lab burned down and he lost the files with his ice core measurements withour them being archived?

  4. Scratch Fury
    Posted Jan 3, 2006 at 11:19 AM | Permalink

    Paul Harvey is still on the air, so I don’t know what you mean by “of a certain age”.

    I mean, I listen to him a couple times a week on my way to or from work. If you can’t get the facts straight on your intro…

  5. IL
    Posted Jan 3, 2006 at 12:58 PM | Permalink

    They killed what was perhaps the oldest living entity on the planet – because they couldn’t wait 6 months for the new season to see how old it was, and to add insult to injury the results and samples aren’t even preserved! As Peter Hearden says, almost certainly in 40 years time people will look back to events of today with similar disbelief but that has to rank as a criminally stupid act.

  6. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jan 3, 2006 at 1:16 PM | Permalink

    #5. He used to run in Canada and doesn’t run here any more. I suspect that his market has contracted quite a bit elsehwere as well, although I might have checked whether he was still in business. I think that it’s evident that Paul Harvey’s market is to Americans of a “certain age” as evidenced by the mention of geriatric products above; I doubt that he’s carried on many hip-hop stations.

  7. Brooks Hurd
    Posted Jan 3, 2006 at 6:52 PM | Permalink

    Re: 3. I agree with you!

    we’ll look back in 40 years time at other things with similar amazement and shame I rekon…

    I hope that the Hwang incident will cause a reassessment of peer review practices.

    With our existing technology, data should only be lost in extreme situations like massive natural disasters (Richter 7+ earthquakes, Tsunamis, etc.) Barring such disasters, all data should be readily available on public archieves, unless the study was privately funded. Even privately funded research should have the data publicly archieved if the study is used for public policy decisions.

    Hwang’s data was available so that Seoul National University and others could review it.

  8. Scratch Fury
    Posted Jan 4, 2006 at 3:25 PM | Permalink

    #7: I’m really not trying to troll here, and it’s unfortunate that my first comment on your site ever was, well, a troll. I’ll say “you caught me at a bad time” and leave it at that.

    Anyway, to continue on a light note, do you really think that any Americans that listen to so-called hip and/or hop stations are reading this site? 🙂

    And yes, I believe Paul Harvey saw his market shrink somewhat after his infamous “sugar candy” speech.

    And on-topic… I don’t believe that a credible scientist can report any data as “lost” without citing some sort of major disaster. If you’re going to do something that you can’t ever do again, do it right, and keep good records. Frankly, the rest of the report is irrelevant in light of that.

  9. ET SidViscous
    Posted Jan 4, 2006 at 3:32 PM | Permalink

    Well Steve does have a tendency to quote “Little Kim”

  10. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jan 4, 2006 at 3:55 PM | Permalink

    #10: Lil’ Kim, if you please.

  11. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jan 4, 2006 at 4:06 PM | Permalink

    #9: This doesn’t seem to have deterred Crowley. After about 20 emails, he finally provided rounded and smoothed data. When I asked for the actual data, he said that he couldn’t find it and seemed to think that it was unreasonable for me to expect it to survive the rigors of a change of a university. So the “disaster” in this case did not rise above a move from Texas to North Carolina. (Crowley and Lowery [2000] is still widely applied by climate scientists including IPCC.) Here’s an excerpt from the correspondence, which I posted up in its entirety last summer here.

    Oct. 15, 2004 McIntyre to Crowley
    Thanks for this. While you have the file open, do you have the source versions that you used before your scaling?

    Oct. 15, 2004
    No, those where done sometime before “¢’‚¬? we got these from various published sources when I was at texas a&m. with moving and everything I am not sure where they are, or if I even have them. tom

    Crowly has trashed me in various public fora for making unreasonable demands on him in unpleasant terms – a claim which is rebutted simply by reading the correspondence. He even went so far as to publish an article in EOS about it, consisting of many untrue claims, which Ray Bradley has posted up here.

  12. ET SidViscous
    Posted Jan 4, 2006 at 4:18 PM | Permalink

    Sir yes sir

  13. per
    Posted Jan 4, 2006 at 4:32 PM | Permalink

    so did you ever reply to that opinion piece in Eos ?
    I must admit, i was nearly tempted to pen a reply, it was so easy to write.

  14. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jan 4, 2006 at 7:25 PM | Permalink

    #14: I submitted a response and haven’t heard back. Although when you think about it, it’s ridiculous to be forced into a he said-she said. Eos should have been more responsible in the first place and the onus really should be on them to require Crowley to retract. Maybe I’ll tune up a nasty letter.

  15. Steve Peterson
    Posted Jan 9, 2006 at 8:43 PM | Permalink

    …. do you really think that any Americans that listen to so-called hip and/or hop stations are reading this site? 🙂

    Hey kiddies, Let’s not promote the falacy that the music we listen to restricts the ideas we engage or the dreams we pursue.
    My fav band the Beastie Boys donate funds to free Tibet with the Milarepa Fund. Music is a vehicle for social change — just like this website here tries to do it through promoting good and responsible science. Not all scientists are nerds either. :>

  16. Nordic
    Posted Jan 18, 2006 at 4:28 PM | Permalink

    Is the tree referenced here the one called “Prometheus”? If so, the information it contained is still availabe. There is a section sitting in the Great Basin National Park visitors center at Lehman Cave. Also, if you know where to go and are not opposed to some vigorous off-trail hiking on loose footing you can see the tree. Fourty years is barely enough time for decay to begin at that elevation in eastern Nevada. Good luck getting the Park Service to allow another section to be removed.

    Here is a page with a photo of the tree that was felled and sectioned:

  17. nanny_govt_sucks
    Posted Jan 18, 2006 at 4:50 PM | Permalink

    Wow! Excellent pictures! Can you see the face of an old man with eyes closed in the tree in the first picture? Amazing.

  18. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jan 18, 2006 at 7:28 PM | Permalink

    Great spotting. I like to collect information about the bristlecone sites. Charleton Peak is also at the site you mentioned I’ve posted up some info on bristlecone sites in the past and have quite a bit of uncollated info. A small thought is that the roads to these bristlecone sites are usually old mining roads to almost forgotten 19th century operations.

  19. Paul Williams
    Posted Jan 18, 2006 at 9:15 PM | Permalink

    How do we know it was the oldest tree in the world? How old is the next oldest tree, and where is it? Are bristlecone pines rare?
    Maybe there weren’t so many treehuggers around in 1964.

  20. Nordic
    Posted Jan 19, 2006 at 12:14 AM | Permalink

    Wheeler Peak is a really interesting place to visit. There are more bristlecones than you might think, and the hike to reach them is not difficult. Our four year old daughter made it no problem. There are also many isolated groves that would take more effort to reach. The great basin is a special place, with lots of gems that are rarely explored. Oh, and when I say that the visitors center has a section of the tree I should note that it is very accesible – I had to prevent my kids from climbing on it.

    As you look east from Great Basin NP the most prominent feature is Notch Peak in Utah. It is a really spectacular mountain with its own bristlecone groves. If you visit on any but the most popular weekends odds are that you will have the whole mountain to yourself. It is worth checking out on the desertislands website.

  21. Nordic
    Posted Jan 19, 2006 at 12:17 AM | Permalink

    One other comment. If I were a dendrochronologist I would be tempted to section these trees as well. I am a forester and can imagine how many $200 incriment borer bits I would snap trying to get a decent set of cores from these tight-ringed old trees. I wouldn’t do it, but I would be tempted.

  22. Posted Jan 19, 2006 at 2:04 PM | Permalink

    At least get the man’s name right: it’s Currey not Curry. And he was not a dendrochronologist. And anyone who thinks lost, missing, or illegible data are unusual must live in a glass tower. The world of science is full of imperfections.

  23. Willis Eschenbach
    Posted Jan 19, 2006 at 7:05 PM | Permalink

    Ronald, thanks for your post. It was indeed “Currey”, although it is listed as “Curry” in about 100 web pages. And he was a geographer.

    Regarding your other issue, the problem is not “lost, missing, or illegible data”, which as you point out, happens fairly frequently.

    The problem is “scientists” actively hiding, providentially “losing”, somehow “neglecting” to archive, or refusing to disclose data. It’s in the “my dog ate my homework” category of excuses.

    Given the evidence, it appears to be an occupational hazard for dendrochronologists …


  24. Nordic
    Posted Jan 20, 2006 at 1:18 AM | Permalink

    Ronald Lanner: You didn’t happen to teach at Utah State did you? I was a student there in the mid to late ’90s. I was there too late to take any classes from Ron Lanner, but I did clear out his lab so Dr. Baker could use it. I remember throwing out a lot of jars full of pollen.

    Loved your book (if it is indeed you) on pines and nutcrackers. Glad to see you are still around, I have noticed your letters to various journals over the years.
    You sound as cranky as ever;)

  25. Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 12:35 PM | Permalink

    Yes, Willis, I am busted. What makes me cranky is losing all that good pinyon pine pollen. I was planning to see if it really has male-restorative powers as the Chinese maintain, but I haven’t yet reached a stage where I need it. If I do, and it doesn’t, you’ll see cranky.

  26. Peter Hearnden
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 1:02 PM | Permalink

    Humm, odd, my absolutely none controversial post #3 seems to have gone…

  27. John G. Bell
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 3:52 PM | Permalink

    Re #26: Peter,
    I have akregator fetching and saving every new post as it comes in. You would have to have posted under another name for me not to have found it with the search I just did. Was it on another thread?

    All of TCO’s posts came to me with profanity fully intact… Hope he is OK.

  28. Doug L
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 4:08 PM | Permalink

    Post number seven refers to Peter’s post number three with his first name and a quote. The words ring a bell, and I recall them coming from Peter Hearnden.

  29. Doug L
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 4:14 PM | Permalink

    Whoops, I left out Re #26, 27 and while I’m at it, post #5 specifically refers to a post by Peter Hearnden.

    “As Peter Hearden says, almost certainly in 40 years time people will look back to events of today with similar disbelief but that has to rank as a criminally stupid act. “

  30. IL
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 4:38 PM | Permalink

    Yep, I posted #5 and Peter definitely posted a response that I quoted. Its gone Captain, its definitely gone..

  31. John G. Bell
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 4:58 PM | Permalink

    Doug L,
    Thanks seems like Peter’s post didn’t get fetched by my akregator. I must have been off line for that part of that day. That or akregator doesn’t work like I thought.

    Your post was up for at least 7 hours. John A might have a copy. Even if it is lost to WordPress, he might be able to find it in his akregator cache.

  32. Doug L
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 6:15 PM | Permalink

    About bristlecones,

    SurRealClimate has a new look, and a thread called “New Look”, with comments like:

    “hey hey hey! Is this a kind of happy new year kind of new look? =) ”

    so I just couldn’t resist posting the following over there on that thread.:

    “Yubba dubba doo, a new look! How about a new look at bristlecones? 🙂 “

  33. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 7:50 PM | Permalink

    Pter gets caught up in Spam Karma from time to time; I’m not sure why. We’ve noted before that Spam Karma will then “retro-spank”. Usually, John A or notice this and recover it, but, the usual display is only the last 20 messages or so. There have been a fantastic number of spams recently – sometimes over 50 a day. So it’s possible that a posting got retro-spanked by Spam Karama and we didn’t notice it and it got lost. If so, I’m sorry, but we really need the Spam Karma to deal with the deluge of spam these days.

  34. Paul
    Posted Jan 21, 2006 at 8:54 PM | Permalink

    I wonder what Peter puts in his posts that get him spanked so regularly? Specific words? Sentences?

    Peter, I’ve not seen much in your posts that would cause me to characterize them as spam. Any clues? I also haven’t seen much on this blog to think that censorship is the issue (but if it was, I’m sure we’d see something from Steve. As someone has said before, it’s Steve’s blog to do with what he wished).

  35. Jim Bouldin
    Posted Sep 13, 2006 at 5:27 PM | Permalink

    In addition to the section at the GBNP visitor center, there is a large slab in the display case at the Ely Convention Center in Ely NV, and there are reportedly sections or pieces thereof at the U of AZ Tree Ring Lab and at the USFS’s Institute of Forest Genetics in Placerville CA. The original stump is in fairly good condition and could be read in situ with some surface treatment, although the pith is gone.

One Trackback

  1. […] by a graduate student and the US Forest Service in the name of science on August 6, 1964. Thanks to the research, they were able to confirm the Bristlecone Pine was around 5,000 years of age.The current oldest […]

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