SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — What if the very thing we need to cope with the enormity of the climate crisis is itself threatened by the climate crisis?
This was the jarring question that went through my mind as I walked in a grove of magnificent sequoias with my teenager one recent weekend.
We had taken a leisurely drive from Los Angeles, stopped for enchiladas in a tiny restaurant tucked amid fruit orchards, sat on a rock and watched a squirrel take apart its food in the shade of these giant old trees. We learned that sequoias, native to the western Sierra Nevada, are some of the oldest, most adaptive trees of North America. They can survive extreme drought, heat, cold. They reproduce through fire.
But as the teenager pointed out, even some of the toughest creatures have their breaking point.
Now, fires are sweeping through nearby Yosemite National Park, including in Mariposa Grove, home to hundreds of sequoias, some very old ones. Climate change has turned up the flame by increasing the frequency of exceptionally hot, dry weather.
The fires of the last two years alone left what the The Associated Press described as a “staggering” death toll among these giants. Nearly 20 percent of the largest sequoias, those with a diameter of more than 4 feet, are estimated to have been lost.
The National Park Service says fires have burned a much greater area of sequoia groves in the last few years than in the last century.
Simon Fierst, a ranger who works at the Giant Forest Museum in Sequoia National Park told us he was confident the species would survive. But when 1,000 year old trees are torched, he said, throwing up his hands, “that’s like losing Notre Dame.”
Our road trip from Los Angeles was a drive through the good, bad, and ugly of the age we live in. We drove past fallow fields because there’s not enough water this year in the Central Valley to sow every field (The Los Angeles Times reported that “395,000 acres of farmland have been fallowed across California because of the drought.”) We drove past bright clumps of fruit orchards, irrigated with water from audaciously engineered canals. We drove past a small fire near the winding pass known as the Grapevine. Then oil wells. “The causes and effects of climate change,” the teenager observed.
I pointed out our complicity. We were, after all, driving a rental car with an internal combustion engine. The teenager sang along to Janelle Monáe, which was incongruous in a different way. (If you know the lyrics of “I Like That,” you know what I mean.)
By the time we arrived at the park gates, the temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit, about 37 Celsius. The low-lying swaths of the park were dry. Some oaks were the color of caramel.
We saw smoke rising from the ashy hills. A fire crew was carrying out a controlled burn near the General Sherman Tree, the oldest sequoia in the park and a huge tourist draw. The controlled burn was designed to clear the understory and reduce fire risk.
We asked Fierst what could be done to protect the trees in the era of climate change. In the long run, it requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he said. But right now, he added, park officials are debating some unusual measures. Should they spray down the forest with water to help stave off risk of fires? Should they apply a bit of pesticide to trees infested with beetles? “These are moral dilemmas,” he said.
Two children approached Fierst for their Junior Ranger badges. They repeated after him the Junior Ranger pledge: “I will continue to explore, learn about, and take care of the natural world wherever I go,” the pledge went.
I felt a lump in my throat.
These trees had endured so much. They had been shaped by so much shock and loss. It was good to be in their presence alongside my child. But it was also good to be reminded of my connection to living beings not my own. It brought home the precarity of being human in this moment. It gave me permission to accept that there are limits to my own resilience.
It stilled me for a bit.
A growing body of research suggests that spending time in the natural world, even as little as two hours a week, has measurable benefits for our physical health and our cognitive functions. I find it increasingly urgent in the time we live in, when we are being asked to absorb so many heavy, hard-to-bear facts about the world. It helps me to make sense of what I cover as a reporter day after day. It helps me to be an attentive parent. It helps me face my own shocks and loss.
Our second day at the park, the teenager and I climbed to Tokopah Falls. It was an easy hike, which was a relief on a very hot day. We made way for faster walkers, passed slower ones as unobtrusively as we could. We stopped to throw off our sneakers and dip our toes into chilled water gushing down from the rocks above. We passed tiny clusters of coral colored flowers, then purple ones further uphill, fallen logs decomposing to make way for new life and then, boulders cool to the touch as we reached the edge of the waterfall. We sat down. We lifted our faces, felt the spray.
Drought grips northern Italy: A prolonged dry spell caused has put the fertile region’s rice harvest and other crops at risk.
An urban oasis: Officials in Ivory Coast are trying to revitalize Banco National Park in Abidjan, one of the world’s last primary rainforests to survive within a major metropolis.
Before you go: A fatal Amazon journey
Dom Phillips, a freelance journalist, and Bruno Pereira, a former government official who was working to protect the Amazon, set off deep into the forest this summer to meet with Indigenous groups patrolling their land. Then, they vanished. The Times’s Brazil correspondent retraced their final journey to understand what happened to the men, and why.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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