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Give Plants a Chance: Erosion and Giant Sequoias

          What is Erosion? Erosion is the gradual degradation (breaking down) of rock and other natural material, by wind, water, gravity, and even animals. Erosion happens all around us on hillsides, the edges of riverbeds, beaches, and cliff walls. It is an entirely natural and necessary process; erosion is responsible for the dispersion and recycling of rocks and minerals into sediment, which enriches soil and provides opportunities for new life to emerge!

          However, human induced erosion is not natural, nor beneficial to our local environment. Scientists have estimated that global rates of erosion have increased 10-40 times its natural rate, due to human influence and activity. If you are looking for signs of human induced erosion, it is particularly obvious alongside walking trails in parks and forests.

          Every year, our Sierra Outdoor School Naturalists take hundreds of of students on field trips to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, aptly named for the beautiful Giant Sequoia grove, (Sequoiadendron giganteum) it is home to. Giant Sequoias are the largest single living thing by volume, in the entire world. A mature Giant Sequoia can weigh as much as nine blue whales, grow up to 300 feet tall, and live for 3,000 years. How do Sequoia trees grow to be so big, tall, and old? A smorgasbord of helpful adaptations. Sequoia trees have thick bark (up to three feet!) which protects it from fire and parasites, tannins which repel insects and fungal disease, twisted bark to ensure flexibility during high winds, and root systems that extend up to an acre wide, to hold tightly to soil.

         John Muir said of these big trees,
               “nothing hurts the big tree. I never saw one that was sick or showed the slightest sign of decay. Barring accidents, it seems to be immortal...So far as I am able to see at present only fire and the ax threaten the existence of these noblest of God's trees.”

         Giant Sequoias are particularly sensitive to human induced erosion. Although their root systems are wide, they don’t run particularly deep, only extending on average 10 feet into the ground. This means, that as humans walk around the base of giant sequoias and erode soil at an increased rate, we expose more and more of the root system of these trees, which may lead to their premature death.

          Giant Sequoias are the largest trees in the world, and some of the oldest. But we may never know how huge and ancient they may grow, if we continue to harm them in the way we do. An easy way we can help these big trees, is simply by staying on the trail, and off their roots. In giving them the space they need to grow, we may look up in wonder at these trees for many thousands of years more. Please enjoy the sequoias from a safe distance, and remember to always give plants a chance!

Originally published March 15 2018
Written by  Maddie Maney
Photos by Maddie Maney and Angel Olavarria


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