The Race to 400 Feet

1      July 1 2006

July 1 2006 did not dawn clear along California’s far northern coast, contrary to what you may have read about Helios’ discovery.   In the summer, it is never sunny in the morning in Eureka, Arcata, Orick, Klamath, and Crescent City.  Instead a marine layer of fog settles in, as the interior of California is very hot in the summer, and that temperature contrast versus the Alaska current induced cool Pacific Ocean creates convective forces that lead to fog development.

In fact, you can go onto Weather Underground and check the hourly observations at Crescent City’s McNamara Airport for that particular date, there was only a peep of sun in the later afternoon when the fog dissipated.  I am sure it was the same in Orick, forty miles to the south.

However, just a little inland, over the first hills or mountains adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, it was assuredly sunny by midday.   Redwood Creek flows into the Pacific in the south part of Orick area, and upstream winds its way south between the first ridge adjacent to the Pacific Ocean and the next ridge to the east which Bald Hills Road and the Tall Trees Grove road run along.   This positioning allows fog to enter Redwood Creek valley in the evening all summer long, but then since there is some distance and a ridge between the valley and the Pacific Ocean the fog retreats downstream along Redwood Creek by late morning, until it meets up with the persistent marine layer on the bend north of McArthur Creek.

So the trees growing along Redwood Creek and the many creeks that flow into Redwood creek receive a decent dose of fog drip all summer long to support the leaves in their upper canopies.   However they also get a lot of sunshine as well since that fog retreats for most of the day.

Redwood Creek and its tributaries have many bends and in some places flow in an orientation that protects trees from the highest winter winds, which are usually from the south.  If the tree grows along a creek with an east west orientation, such as the bend in Redwood Creek at Tall Trees Grove or along Tom McDonald Creek, and if the tree has hillside protection, that strong southern wind from the winter “Pineapple Express” storms can whistle along mostly above the tops of the tallest redwoods.

For these reasons – summer fog and sun, wind protection, and also soil condition, the redwood trees along Redwood Creek and its tributaries can get very tall.  And not just right along the creeks, but on the terraced steppes above the creeks, on steep hillsides.

Redwood Creek overlook looking downstream

2      The Discovery of Helios and Hyperion

 

Helios and Hyperion were discovered on July 1 and August 25, 2006, respectively.  Both trees were found growing on steep hillsides above tributaries of Redwood Creek.    Both were found by Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor using a newer technology which involved a hand held laser beam with some internal machine ware that returned distance and angle to reflective target.  Using this information geometry can be used to find tree height, as the opposite angle (angle to reflective target) and hypotenuse (distance to reflective target) are used to determine target height (using sine table).   Typically the machine ware will also do this calculation.

However it is almost never quite that easy as the top and bottom cannot usually be captured in the same measurement, so a series of incremental measurements are made.  Throw in a forest and rough terrain and this becomes pretty tough and exacting work.

Then one other issue is where ground level is on wide hillside trees, where the upslope side of the trunk can be twelve feet higher than the downslope side of the trunk.  So the height is calculated as the average of downslope and upslope height.

Helios’ height was measured at 374.3 feet, which was about four feet taller than the previous tallest measured tree, Stratosphere Giant in Humboldt Redwoods, and about three feet taller than Icarus, another tall tree in the Helios area also discovered on July 1, 2006.

Then Hyperion was discovered in August and measured at 379.1 feet in September.   That was almost five feet taller than Helios.

Since Hyperion and Helios stood so much further ahead than other trees in height, especially Hyperion, and since so many tributaries of Redwood Creek were logged before being incorporated into Redwood National Park in 1964 and 1978, it is probably true there were other tall trees of similar height that were cut down in the 1960’s and 1970’s.   Looking at the winding creeks and Redwood Creek itself, incorporating altitude, soil conditions, distance above creek, and wind protection there were maybe a half dozen redwoods in the area above 375 feet tall in 1960.   Hyperion at the time was probably around 370 feet tall.  How tall the tallest one was, it will never be known, but it could have been 390-400 feet tall.   Maybe it was along Forty Four creek.

3      The Race to Number One

 

Helios’ height is increasing faster than Hyperion’s. This is probably due to the fact Helios is growing back toward its maximum height.  About a hundred years ago the top broke off of Helios and it went from a 400 foot redwood to a 350 redwood in a couple seconds.   So Helios’ height growth is based on branch reiterations.  Hyperion’s crown does not include reiterated branches, its crown height has to increase as a general push upward of the intertwined canonical canopy.  So Hyperion is presently at its historical maximum height.

Another very tall tree in Humboldt, the Stratosphere Giant, is growing in the Rockefeller Forest just a little ways from Bull Creek in a general area that has supported trees that were possibly 400 foot redwoods before their tops broke off (Giant Tree and Bull Creek Giant).    The Humboldt locations are on flats versus on hillsides, with summer nightly fog flowing up the Eel River and into Bull Creek and with good protection from high winds due to Grasshopper Mountain as well as an east-west valley orientation.

Here are some recent actual heights for the tallest redwoods, along with growth rates.  As is apparent, barring a wind event or substantial change in relative growth rates, Hyperion will remain the tallest tree on earth for some time.

Tree Hyperion Helios Strat Giant
Height 2000 unknown unknown 368.60
Height 2006 379.10 374.30 unknown
Height 2013 379.65 376.54 372.30
Height 2015 379.84 377.01 373.49
Height 2017 380.33 unknown unknown

 

Growth inches/year Hyperion Helios Strat Giant
2000-2013 3.42
2000-2015 3.91
2006-2013 0.94 3.84
2006-2015 0.99 3.61
2006-2017 1.34
2013-2015 1.14 2.82 7.14
2013-2017 2.04
2015-2017 2.94

 

 

 

Scenario One Hyperion Helios Strat Giant
Growth Rate Inch/Year 2.0 3.5 4.5
Act/Est Height 2017 380.3 377.6 374.2
Est Height 2020 380.8 378.5 375.4
Est Height 2025 381.7 379.9 377.2
Est Height 2030 382.5 381.4 379.1
Est Height 2035 383.3 382.8 381.0
Est Height 2040 384.2 384.3 382.9
Est Height 2050 385.8 387.2 386.6
Est Height 2075 390.0 394.5 396.0
Est Height 2100 392.5 398.9 401.6

 

 

Scenario Two Hyperion Helios Strat Giant
Growth Rate Inch/Year 3.0 3.0 6.0
Act/Est Height 2017 380.3 377.5 374.5
Est Height 2020 381.1 378.3 376.0
Est Height 2025 382.3 379.5 378.5
Est Height 2030 383.6 380.8 381.0
Est Height 2035 384.8 382.0 383.5
Est Height 2040 386.1 383.3 386.0
Est Height 2050 388.6 385.8 391.0
Est Height 2075 394.8 392.0 403.5
Est Height 2100 398.6 395.8 411.0

 

It would be exciting to see a 400 foot redwood, and it will probably happen.  But it will take another 50 years for a tree to get there.  I would guess that tree will either be Helios or Stratosphere Giant.

But it is amazing enough there is a 380 foot redwood growing in Redwood National Park right now, Hyperion.

The tallest tree

9 thoughts on “The Race to 400 Feet”

  1. According to Mario Vaden’s website on the Hyperion page, he states pretty heavily Hyperion is no longer the world’s tallest tree. Here is a quote “Hyperion Coast Redwood was the tallest known of all plant species in the world from 2006 to 2013.” And another one further down the page, “A new height record occured between 2013 and 2016, surpassing the 379.1 ft. world record set by Hyperion in 2006.”

    So it seems Hyperion is still the tallest of the trees known prior to 2013, but a new unknown tree has come forward as the tallest. I wonder what its name is and if we will ever get to know it. Kind of feels like I’ve been living a lie since I posted a photo of Hyperion when I visited it stating it was the tallest tree on earth and had many people commenting “that’s bullshit how could anyone know that” and I had to provide articles to prove it haha. But there is an endless amount of trees, so I’m sure there will always be another tall one hiding somewhere waiting to be discovered. We probably will never know for sure at any given time.

    1. Hello. Would go with Hyperion as the present tallest but don’t know for sure. Like you say there could be a taller one, it would have to be something on a hillside, those are hard to measure with aerial LiDAR and also difficult to pick out when on the ground with a range finder.

      On the Facebook Live ranger talks this question sometimes come up, the most complete answer I have run across is the talk from this past August 7, about 12 minutes into the video. It’s still there on Face Book if you want to review.

  2. Hi thank you for that video recommendation, was pretty cool to watch and learn some new things. Were you referring to him tackling a question about what the tallest tree known is? Cause I saw him talk about how tall trees grow slowly compared to shorter trees, which was interesting and can give insight into this stuff somewhat. But wasn’t sure if you were referring to something more concrete regarding the height of trees.

    Yeah I suppose we won’t know for sure unless we have inside information that some folks have such as Mario. I definitely believe he knows of a taller tree though based on what I quoted, and he also has a photo up on that page where if you look at it, the photo name says quite plainly something like world’s tallest tree, but he cropped out the tallest one in the photo so we don’t see a picture of the tree, just the surrounding trees. I wish I knew more, it’s something that fascinates me a lot. Cheers!

  3. This is an awesome projection of growth trends! I didn’t realize these trees were still growing up to as much as 3 to 7 inches per year! Pretty phenomenal we could have 396 to 411 foot trees by the end of our century. In fact, if we added the extra few feet of the lower end of the trunk, we could probably come up with 400-415 feet numbers – 😉 – Although, that’s technically “cheating.” If we do see anything that tall in this century, I think maybe the story of that 424 foot tree cut down in Elk River in 1886, maybe wasn’t 100% hogwash. I guess we’ll wait and see. I’m putting my bets on Stratosphere Giant.

    The story of the 390 foot Redwood is still yet to be confirmed. M.D. Vaden’s webpage on Hyperion does however state clearly that such a tree was found one or more years ago, I quote his page: … “Between 2013 to 2016 heights shuffled the deck and by 2014 Redwood National Park already lost claim to all three tallest in one park. Growth rates changed and during drier growing seasons 2014 & 2015. new tallest coast redwoods were discovered missed by LiDAR. More than one lost height, a new world record discovery was made, and heights of all tallest redwoods changed. Nothing is the same. May 2017, Atkins reported one loss of height of 25 feet. Presently, a coast redwood is approaching 390′ tall. With Sequoia sempervirens inching toward 390′, maybe 400′ is realistic in my generation. ”

    I guess the only way to know would be to ask the other experts in the field if such a tree was found after 2013 or 14. The fact that LiDAR doesn’t catch everything, suggests many possibilities in an ever changing canopy. And perhaps the allusion to a mythical 390 foot tree, is nothing other than the rounding up of Hyperion’s height, at the lowest end of the trunk -386 feet?. Although, that explanation doesn’t quite jive with the details of Vaden’s page. The suspense of such a tree being out there certainly keeps the adventure alive in any case!

    Some of the most exciting discoveries are coming out of southern Oregon and California, reviewing some of the ENTS forum posts by Taylor, Vaden etc. 260 -280 foot Pines from LiDAR returns. The discovery of a 321.5 foot Douglas fir west of Mt St. Helens in a grove of 300 footers, is also an exciting LiDAR discovery Michael Taylor had made, and ground truther by Dr Sillett and Ken Fisher. Oregon Field Guide also recently featured “Ascending the Giants” investigating LiDAR returns on super tall Douglas fir in Coos County, Oregon. It looks like quite a few 300 ft trees are out there, maybe a new world record or several will be found in Oregon or Wash.

    Redwood Creek must have been an awe inspiring sight, just 50 years ago. Great work compiling all these facts and figures!

  4. Hello Micah

    Glad you liked the stats. Since range finders, canopy ascension, and LiDAR have come into the picture there is a good longitudinal record of height changes in the tallest redwood trees from 2000 to 2015. After 2015 unfortunately it is either word of mouth or reviewing the plot research for trees such as Paradox or Orion.

    During those 15 years all the top twenty trees gained height. Are they going to keep gaining height until a bunch of them hit 390 feet in a hundred years? How can this be reconciled to the fact the entire intact Bull Creek Flats area tops out with the Strat at 375 feet after 10,000 years of uninterrupted growth? Is there some physiological mechanism that will prevent these trees from getting to 390 feet? Is there some new factor in place accelerating growth such as fire suppression or increasing atmospheric carbon? Does the fact Paradox and Orion have lost height recently mean the tallest trees are approaching their maximum potential height? Is there an iteration cycle based on Cascadia earthquakes? Lots of questions for researchers to answer!

    I agree there could be a 390 foot undetected redwood. Since some of the tallest redwoods are on slopes in winding notch valleys where LiDAR is less accurate, maybe a few tall ones in similar settings were missed. It is so hard and time consuming to accurately measure hillside trees in dense groves, I am sure there are big patches never thoroughly subjected to ground truthing. It’s tough going in there, definitely not a day hike through the woods.

    Those Douglas Firs really grow tall in a lot of places. I bet there were thousands over 300 feet a couple hundred years ago, and maybe a few four hundred footers.

    Mark

    1. Mark, Thanks. Knowing that the top 20 Redwoods are still gaining height, at 360+ to 380 feet is pretty incredible in and of itself. And indeed, maybe their realistic ceiling may top out around 385-390 or something just shy of 400′ with all the factors you have mentioned. Yep, those steep slope trees are a challenge to get to.

      Yep, I think thousands over 300 feet for Doug fir was likely in the past. I have about 220 accounts of over 300 feet Doug firs in my files, some pretty decent historic records from surveyors and foresters 300-350+’ range, other taller claims more difficult to confirm. 400 feet was definitely a rare height, if and / or when it was achieved by the species. Many of the tallest current state champions in Oregon and Washington are growing in the 1,500-2,000 foot elevation range, like Coos county’s 300-327 foot firs, or the S. Fork Toutle river 321.5 ft fir, at 1,600 ft ASL. The average elevation data I was able to gleam from my historic files, is 250 to 1,000 ft elevation, some times 1,500 ft in the foothills, but all the tallest ones generally were sub 1,000 foot. So it doesn’t surprise me if the best lowland valley sites, and ideal hill ridges were cleared out a long time ago.

      These steep hillside trees though, seem to have the tallest representatives of both species. Even Doerner/Brummett fir, is straddling a ravine, 20 feet of the trunk goes down hill, so that the tree was at one point 339 feet, in 1988 – if measured from the lowest end of it’s trunk. (Van Pelt, 2001). I agree, if any new height records are found of both species, like say a 330 ft fir, or a 381-390 ft Redwood, it’ll be one of these hill side ones.

      Happy Hiking! Always enjoy your posts 🙂
      Micah

  5. Well, there is a new world record of around 390ft that has been found by MD Vaden. I hope it never gets revealed, to avoid the stampede tearing up Hyperion and GOT. Helios should be safe, it is so well hidden.

    1. Jake I haven’t heard about a current 390 foot redwood but I am not in the loop. It is possible, something on a steep hillside in a hard to reach remote area. If you ask the Redwood Parks they will tell you Hyperion is the tallest tree at 380 feet three inches.

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