Thursday, December 7, 2023

A Tour of Great Basin National Park's Bristlecone Pine Groves - Part 3 Mount Washington

See Part 1 (Overview) and Part 2 (Wheeler Cirque) of the Tour of Great Basin National Park's Bristlecone Pine Groves

The Mount Washington Bristlecone Pine Grove is quite extensive and is the only grove in Great Basin National Park that can be reached by vehicle. However, the road is extremely rough and requires a high clearance 4WD with an experienced driver to go up a technically difficult set of switchbacks and along some areas with a lot of exposure and other areas that are eroding with every rainstorm. It's located in the west-central part of the Park.

One of the unique things about the Mt. Washington grove is that it experienced a large wildfire in 2000 (Philips Ranch Fire) that burned through many bristlecone pines. Often, bristlecone pines are fairly solitary, especially at higher elevations, so when one catches on fire, it's hard for the fire to spread. In this case, the fire started at lower elevations in other trees, and then strong winds blew it uphill, blowing embers from tree to tree.

Even some rather isolated trees burned. Fortunately, young trees are growing back in portions of the burned area, and overall the fire seems to have stimulated growth of saplings. Here's an article about how the bristlecone pine recovery is going.

The top of Mt. Washington,  at 11,658 feet (3,553 m), is too high for bristlecone pines or any other trees. 

If you look closely, though, as you approach the summit, you might spot pieces of dead wood. Where did they come from? Well, during the Altithermal (Holocene climate optimum) roughly 9,500 to 5,500 years ago, it was warmer than it is now. This allowed bristlecone pines to grow higher on the mountain. When it cooled off again, the highest trees died, leaving their wood. In most cases, the wood disappears in a few hundred years, but bristlecone wood is so dense that it can stay on the landscape for thousands of years, which is why it is so important for climate studies.

Some bristlecone pines right outside the Park, on property owned by the LongNow Foundation, are being studied by the Desert Research Institute and University of Nevada, Reno to learn more about how they grow and interact with their environment. Sap flow measurements taken every 10 minutes for five years (wow!) show how these trees relate to soil moisture and other climate variables. Read more here. 

Most people who go up Mt. Washington just enjoy the beauty of the bristlecones. The trees take some amazing forms. 

Generally, the higher up the mountain you go, the smaller the trees are. Some interesting things are happening with the bristlecones in the upper zones that they inhabit. This study found that they have wider tree rings, meaning higher temperatures, in the last century than in the past 3,500 years. Another thing that has been changing is that we can now find more limber pines at higher elevation, as they "leap frog" over the bristlecone pines in some cases to live even higher on the mountains, as this study found.

Bristlecone pines can be 30 years old or even older before they produce their first cones. There are two different kinds of cones. Below are the pollen cones, very small.

The other kind of cone is a pine cone. You can see why they call it a bristle-cone pine. These cones are almost spiky! The seeds in them are very small.

There are some amazing cliffs and views in this area, and I like to wander along the edge. Here's a view looking east at sunrise.

This tree is quite amazing as it balances on the edge. 

Pretty much every time I pass this tree I have to take a photo! My nickname for it is Perseverance. It keeps on persevering even though the cliff is crumbling away, no longer supporting it like it used to. Nevertheless, part of the tree is still alive!

Part of the appeal of these trees is just how twisted they can get, and how colorful the wood is.

Mount Washington is an amazing place to soak in the atmosphere of bristlecone pines, both day...

...and night.
More bristlecone groves still coming...

1 comment:

topoDcat said...

Wonderful! I'm a big fan of Bristlecone pines in the Whites. I need to come visit GBNP

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