The Largest Redwoods – An Unfinished Story

1      Tree Height Versus Tree Volume

 

Tree height is an easy concept.  Measure the top and measure ground level and you have tree height.  Tree volume is more difficult to grasp.  The solid parts of a tree take up a certain amount of space, and that is the tree’s volume.  Since a tree is a tapering cylinder, cone cross section formulas can be used to estimate volumes of a tree by section.  Then sometimes the volume of the branches is estimated as well.  So tree volume is a pretty complicated business to nail down with precision.  For large redwoods the formula for a perfect cone usually gets you in the ballpark for estimating tree volume.

At some point in the near future technology may allow for rapid assessment of tree volumes in the same way the onset of laser rangefinders allowed for rapid assessment of tree height starting around the year 2000.  Think of a quadcopter with a digital camera that can measure tree height and width at various increments as it flies around and up and down a tree’s trunk.   Then think of this quadcopter moving up and down a hillside, doing these measurements for all trees over a certain size on the ridge.    This technology measures the trunk only.   Measuring limb volume is much more complex, and generally limb volume is not included when noting the volume of the largest trees.

2      The Largest Redwoods – A Very Incomplete List

 

There are lists which show the largest known redwoods in terms of volume and the tallest known redwoods in terms of height.  The height list is certainly complete or near complete as airplane based LiDAR measurements have allowed for whole forests to be measured for height.  However the largest volume list is incomplete, perhaps markedly incomplete.

Although trails have been built through and near many exemplary redwood groves, there are many areas with exemplary redwoods which have no trails.  Places such as the west side of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the Lost Man Creek area in Redwood National Park, and  the slopes above Redwood creek.    Even in areas with trails there could be very large redwoods tucked out of sight just a little bit away from the trails.

Now think about where the largest volume redwoods have been located.   Mostly in groves that have trails.  Why are so many of the largest redwoods located in Prairie Creek Redwoods?  For one, Prairie Creek has a lot of great redwood habitat with lots of alluvial flats and sheltered hillsides.  But also Prairie Creek has many trails through this habitat to make the identification of large trees easier.   What is different between Prairie Creek and the nearby groves of Redwood National Park?   Not much, at least for the groves that are relatively low in elevation.  But Prairie Creek has a much more complete trail system through its groves.

Let’s amplify this point with some statistics.

 

3      Most Redwoods Over 25,000 Cubic Feet are Yet To Be Discovered

 

If we assess the volume distribution of the top 25 giant sequoias and top 25 coast redwoods we see the relative volume between the largest and 25th largest trees in each group is similar.  In other words, each group covers the same relative range in volume.

Sequoia and Coast Redwood Top 25 Largest Trees Relative Volumes
Sequoia and Coast Redwood Top 25 Largest Trees Relative Volumes

 

So sequoias and coast redwoods have the same relative range from the largest through the 25th largest tree.   But there are many, many more mature redwoods than mature sequoias.

Species Trees/Acre Old Growth Acres Old Growth Trees
Giant Sequoia 3        38,000       114,000
Coast Redwood 8        85,000       680,000

Here the coast redwood old growth acres include only the northern redwood parks.

So there are 6X as many old growth redwoods in their prime range than the total number of old growth sequoias.  Yet the band for the top 25 trees in each species is the same?   There is only one explanation for this, and that is many, many of the largest redwoods have been missed, so far.

As a second comparison, let’s review the relative volume distribution for the twenty five largest redwoods versus the relative height distribution for the twenty five tallest redwoods.  How do those bands look?  Well they look really, really different.

Top 25 Largest and Tallest Redwoods relative volumes
Top 25 Largest and Tallest Redwoods relative volumes and relative heights

 

The 25th tallest redwood is about 95% as tall as the tallest redwood.  The 25th largest redwood is about 60% as large as the largest redwood.   Why the difference?   All or almost all of the tallest redwoods have been identified, through the use of laser rangefinder and LiDAR technology.  And many of the largest redwoods have not been found, as there is no comparable technology to quickly assess tree volume.

The current largest coast redwood tree lists have 25 trees over 24,000 cubic feet.   That is only a sample, there are probably over 100 such trees.  And almost certainly several trees are out there that are larger than 38,000 cubic feet.

So lots of discoveries to be made.   And lots of upcoming technology in the form of quad copters with smart digital imaging to assist researchers in making the discoveries.

Thanks for reading.

 

Hiking to Hyperion – Neither Triumph nor Failure

1      June 8, 2015.   The Big Day

The Hyperion redwood tree.  Tallest tree in the world.  It was always “there”, and probably passed over by more than a few redwood researchers and explorers.  But in August 2006 Michael Taylor and Chris Atkins put the rangefinders on the tree and found a height of 378 feet, making it the new tallest tree.  And in 2016 it remains the world’s tallest tree, at 380 feet 4 inches.

So that’s great, but where is this tree?   Well, in 2006, and for many years after that, no one would say.   But the tree was featured in a best seller.  And even today you can go to You Tube to play views from Hyperion’s canopy, and order a CD from National Geographic if you want even clearer canopy views.  Those canopy views gave away the general area for Hyperion to a number of people, more so over time as Google Earth capabilities and clarity improved.

So armed with my “definitive” analysis, I was set to find Hyperion.  This was a third attempt.  The first time was very fun and interesting but wrong area.  The second time was also fun and interesting but still wrong area.  Gosh the remote areas of Redwood National Park are incredibly green and beautiful with many, many giant trees.  But the areas were wrong for Hyperion.  But this third time would be the charm, I hoped.

2      Off to Hyperion

 

Around 11 AM I arrived at the mouth of the suspected creek.  This required a crossing of Redwood Creek which was knee deep with a pretty quick flow but really not that difficult on this day.  This crossing is impossible in wetter months as Redwood Creek can be twenty feet deep.

The feeder creek, the one hopefully housing Hyperion, was very pleasant, with a lot of small frogs.  The creek bed has some uniform shaped stones which are a little slippery to walk over, I suspect these may be left over from the beds of logging roads that were once in the area.   Since I was alone I took care with every step, I did not want to slip and fall and hit my head on a rock, that would be really bad.  Every now and then there were some nettles to move aside and deeper pools to avoid.  I saw no human footprints.

There was a little under duck beneath a small log pile.  It looked solid enough and kind of served as an official entrance to the area of the creek where the mature redwoods start.   It was almost as if a sign could be put up there that says “This Way to Hyperion Grove”.

This Way to Hyperion
This Way to Hyperion

 

So all was well, I was making slow progress up the creek.  But then, some motion to my left, followed by the loudest, most guttural bellow I had ever heard.  And the source was close.  A bear, and he or she was very pissed off at me!   Well, I bellowed right back, HEY!!!!, and stomped around the creek.  I never heard from the bear again, it must have then moved out of the area.   Sounds unbelievable, but this is the honest to goodness truth.

The bear trap
The bear trap

 

Now armed with an extra dose of adrenaline I continued up the creek.  There were some nice tall redwoods to the right up on the hillside.  They didn’t exactly look like some of the Hyperion pictures, but who knows.

Hyperion Teasers
Hyperion Teasers

 

But I knew I needed to keep going.  I had one more good clue, a picture of some guys climbing over a log pile.  I was looking for that log pile.  And then, forty careful minutes into the hike up the creek, there it was, the log pile.  I was right!  This was Hyperion’s creek!

Log Pile Near Hyperion
Log Pile Near Hyperion

 

3      Hyperion Grove

 

So up and over that log pile I went.   Just like the guys in the photo.  No problems.   After that I was really amongst the old growth, with big mature trees on both sides of the creek.  The sweet smell of bay laurel / pepper wood permeated the air and the big timber muffled all sounds.  I knew Hyperion would be on the right side of the creek as moving upstream and right in this area.  So where was it, which tree is it?  There were a couple dozen to pick from.

Now I need to tell you Hyperion looks nothing like many of the pre 2015 photos on the internet.  It is much closer to the creek, just above the end of the sword ferns.  And it is very eroded on the downhill side, really pitifully eroded.  That tree could fall anytime, at least that’s the way it looks to me.   If it were growing that way along 101 I think Cal Trans would cut it down.  And those pictures of the grove called “Hyperion from Below” – no, they are not from below, they are from across the creek’s valley.

So I walked right by Hyperion.  Saw it, said nah, and walked right by it.  Unbelievable, but true.  I am sure others have done it.   A short way further along I saw a couple trees on the right that were good suspects.  And I saw another tree further ahead that looked like a candidate.  But I was getting tired, the day was moving along, and I decided to go up through the ferns right there to the two trees.

Candidate tree - not Hyperion
Candidate tree – not Hyperion

 

Candidate trees near Hyperion
Candidate trees near Hyperion

 

After hiking to the two trees I realized they were not Hyperion and its neighbor.  So I sat there for a while, feeling defeated.   I did not realize I was sitting sixty feet west of Hyperion and its neighbor.  The neighbor was blocking Hyperion and the distinguishing adjacent log.  So after about twenty minutes of reflection I walked back down to the creek, looking right at Hyperion on the way down.  I can still see it in my mind.  I didn’t recognize it for what it was.  How about that.

Here is my GPS trace of the hike in the Hyperion area, it is a little erratic versus my actual course but generally correct.  H1 is Hyperion’s location.  What a stunning effort and what a colossal albeit temporary setback.

Trace of hike in Hyperion area
Trace of hike in Hyperion area

 

Later last summer more information on Hyperion was leaked and I was able to go back later in the year and locate the tree no problem.  While sitting behind Hyperion I looked over to the two redwoods I was sitting beside three months earlier and just shook my head.

Hyperion
Hyperion

 

 

Thanks for reading.