The tallest trees on Earth are so incomprehensibly large we can’t see the top of them. They dwarf any of our feats of engineering – Hyperion, a Californian Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and the largest of them all, is 20 meters taller (65.62 feet) than Big Ben in London or the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Pockets of these mammoth trees reside in California in the United States, Tasmania in Australia, and Sabah, the Malaysian state in Northern Borneo. Environmental and atmospheric conditions are perfectly balanced in these locations, leaving trees with only one thing left to compete for – light.
Reaching dizzying heights requires impressive adaptations – the trees manipulate their environment to develop their microclimate. Not only does this serve them, but it enables them to support a diverse array of animals and plants. People have seen Redwoods with trees growing in their canopy, up to heights of 12.19 meters (40 feet)!
The Tallest Trees In The World?
Redwoods – The Ancient Giants of California
Redwoods grow in lowland, coastal areas of California, where temperatures stay moderate year-round and the soil is exceptionally fertile. They once covered two million acres of California, but following 160 years of intensive logging, only 120,000 acres remain.
The oldest known Redwood is believed to have lived for 2000 years – on average, they can make it to 500-700 years old. Over long lengths of time, they can grow to extraordinary heights.
Native Americans lived among the Redwoods peacefully for hundreds of years – cutting down a tree was seen as an act of violence, and the forests were allowed to prosper.
The story goes that in the beginning, all plants and animals were once people. One of those was named Coyote, who created the world from the top of Sonoma Mountain. The village elders became the Redwoods, coloured red to show we all are from the same blood.
When settlers arrived in the late 1700’s the exploitation of the area began. Only five percent of the original old-growth forests are left.
Hyperion – The Tallest Tree in the World
Discovered in 2006, Hyperion reaches 115.85 metres (380.1 feet) into the sky. Being the tallest tree in the world has its dangers, so its exact location is a closely guarded secret.
At 600 years old, Hyperion’s growth rate has slowed. It will likely lose its title of the tallest tree in the world to a neighboring Redwood who hasn’t slowed down just yet. As the age of the tree increases, they take to expanding their width rather than their height. Hyperion’s volume is currently at 1076 cubic meters (38,000 cubic feet)!
An Uncertain Future
Currently listed as endangered by the IUCN, Redwoods are in trouble. Despite being heavily protected, it’s unclear the toll that climate change will play on their future.
Redwoods rely on moderate temperatures – no freezing nights or boiling days. If climate change increases global temperatures, Redwoods may find themselves outside their comfort zone.
Growing to hundreds of feet tall requires an immense amount of water, and higher temperatures mean drought-prone California could soon dry up.
However, more greenhouse gases escaping into the atmosphere could enable Redwoods to grow quicker. Carbon dioxide, a common pollutant from burning fossil fuels such as gas and oil, is used by plants during photosynthesis. Increasing its concentration in the atmosphere could result in better growth. Whether this will be enough to compensate for climate change’s other effects on the gentle giants is as yet unknown.
How do they Grow so Tall?
To support their immense size, Redwoods create their ecosystem. High up in their canopies, dust, seeds, and needles are collected. Fog persists year-round in California, and the leaves and needles of the tree absorb this moisture. The water is later condensed, creating a simulated rainfall to nourish their microenvironment.
A rich, peaty soil develops amongst the canopy that supports other life. Trees grow on top of the giants, and species more commonly found in small streams such as crustaceans, molluscs, and salamanders thrive, hidden in the trees canopies.
For years scientists puzzled over how giant trees pulled water from the roots, hundreds of metres into the air. Redwoods provide a simple answer – they don’t. Having a water input both from the ground and the sky enables them to reach impressive heights.
The Colossal Eucalyptuses of Australia
It’s not only California that harbours giants – Tasmania, in Australia, is home to 29 Eucalyptus species – some of whom grow to staggering heights and live up to 400 years.
King Stringy, of the species Eucalyptus oblique, is 86 metres (282 feet) tall. The tree is affectionally named after its thick, stringy bark, characteristic of its species.
The White Knight, a manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), lives among a group of immensely tall manna gums. It reaches 92 metres (301 feet) into the air, residing in the Evercreech Forest Reserve.
Malaysia’s Endangered Titan Forests
The Yellow Meranti trees (Shorea faguentiana) are the tallest tropical trees in the world. They grow in the Danum Valley Conservation area, located in the Sabah forests. It is one of the most highly protected areas of rainforest found in all of South-East Asia.
In 2016, scientists discovered a grove of Yellow Meranti trees with a minimum height of 90 meters (295 feet). Three years later, there was another discovery – a Meranti tree that had reached 100.8 meters (330.7 feet)!
Despite the protection, Yellow Meranti trees find themselves on the IUCN’s red list – a list of the most endangered species on the planet. Their forests are home to the also endangered orang-utan, forest elephants and clouded leopard.
It would take 68 people, balanced one on top of the other, to reach the height of Hyperion, the tallest tree in the world. The magnitude of these trees is incomprehensible, as is their impact on their environment.
Sadly, a common theme that runs amongst the giants is their endangered status – dwindling numbers and an uncertain future threaten the lives of trees that have lived on this Earth for thousands of years.