Just a few exits away from the hum of the rapidly growing Summerville area is a quiet forest home to bald cypress trees, rooted deeply into soil that has supported their nearly 1,000-year lifetime.
These cypress trees, located in the midst of Francis Beidler Forest’s nearly 18,000 acre wildlife sanctuary, are some of the oldest trees in the United States.
Shortly after the sanctuary first opened in 1977, researchers took samples from many of the trees to get an idea of just how old they were, said Matthew Johnson, who is the Beidler Forest Audubon Center director. By creating a hole that’s about half an inch in diameter, researchers used an increment borer to extract small samples of wood from the tree to study.
More than 40 years later, that data is still being used to learn more about climate change over time. Recently, researchers from the University of Alabama (UA), alongside additional colleagues from Europe, visited the forest to take more samples that will be used to compare past and present data and how it relates to the changing climate.
“Researches just came out this past weekend to replicate that work and to assess what you can learn about the trees pre-1980,” Johnson said. “What can we learn over the last 40 years as the climate has changed and how it is reflected in the growth rings in the trees?”
Among those researchers was Clay Tucker, a postdoctoral researcher at UA. Tucker said one of the several ongoing research projects within the forest involves looking at disturbance ecology.
“This means that we were looking at what happens to the forest and what trees come up after a hurricane,” Tucker said. “We analyzed a bunch of trees in different plots and to see how old each one of the trees was to see if we could map that history of disturbance through time.”
Cypress, like many other trees that grow in water, eventually begins hollowing out, Tucker explained.
“The oldest cypress trees usually rot through time, so you don’t ever get to know how old the oldest trees are because the inside is rotten,” Tucker said. “I’m confident that there are trees throughout Beidler that are well over 1,000 years, but we have at least 1,000 years of data there.”
Not only were samples taken of the trees that are still growing, cross section samples were also taken from trees that were already dead and had fallen on the ground.
“These trees live very long but are also very rot resistant,” Johnson said. “Trees that fell maybe a hundred years ago still preserve a lot of their inner wood. We have some trees that have been (lying) on the ground for almost 200 years and by looking at their rings, we can see how old they were at the time they died.”
Because the trees are so resistant to rotting, Johnson said, many people began using their wood for a variety of products. Tree loggers cut down vast numbers of the trees to use for timber throughout the years. But about two miles into the heart of the Beidler Forest, there are still many ancient cypress trees that have been preserved.
“There used to be bald cypress trees all over the Southeast,” Tucker explained. “But they were cut down, but there are little pockets of them that were saved here and there.”
Also in the forest are tupelo trees, maple trees and oak trees, among others. Johnson said while these trees can live around 200 years, few other species of trees outlive the bald cypress.
Researchers took samples from more than 300 of these different species of trees in the forest to also assess climate change comparison. While the data has not been published yet, staff at the forest are hopeful that finding more information regarding the resilience of the cypress trees and climate change over the years will aid in preserving and protecting forests throughout the state.