Is Climate Change Killing the Baobabs? Nope, even the study authors don’t make the claim!

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen

baobab_and_elephantA recent study into the ages of the oldest of Africa’s iconic baobab trees has spawned a lot of press coverage — very little of it scientifically accurate.

Headlines range all over the intellectual map depending on the general tendency for bias and yellow journalism of the news outlet.

Here are the headlines (with links) and a sample pull-quote from each:

SMITHSONIAN

Something Is Killing Off Africa’s Largest Baobab Trees

“…the oldest baobabs across Africa have been dying over the past dozen years, and researchers believe it’s a direct result of climate change.”

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Africa’s Oldest Trees Are Dying, and Scientists Are Stumped

“The culprit behind their deaths is still unknown, though scientists suspect that changing climate is to blame.”

SCIENCE News

Africa’s strangest trees are stranger than thought—and they’re dying mysteriously

“They suspect climate change—and underground water that’s harder for the roots to reach—may have something to do with the trees’ demise, but also point out that over each one’s life span, it has undergone wetter, drier, colder, and warmer conditions that stress the tree and sometimes kill other plants.”

PHYS ORG

‘Shocking’ die-off of Africa’s oldest baobabs: study

“The trees, aged between 1,100 and 2,500 years and some as wide as a bus is long, may have fallen victim to climate change, the team speculated.“

Washinton Post (Chris Mooney)

Africa’s most famous trees are dying, and scientists suspect a changing climate

“Mr. Patrut [the study’s lead author] says the largest trees are the most vulnerable – and he believes that a changing climate is involved, although the study itself says that “further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition.””

NPR

Goats and Soda : NPR “Scientists are wondering what’s behind the mysterious die-off — and are looking at climate change as a likely culprit.”

“Patrut says more research is needed to understand the cause of the die-off, but he believes the most likely explanation is climate change.  “These trees are under pressure by temperature increases and drought,” he says.”

The Atlantic

Trees That Have Lived for Millennia Are Suddenly Dying — The oldest baobabs are collapsing, and there’s only one likely explanation.

“No one can say if baobabs have died off in this way in centuries past; these trees decay very quickly, and leave few traces behind. “But when around 70 percent of your 1,500 to 2,000-year-old trees died within 12 years, it certainly is not normal,” says Erika Wise from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It is difficult to come up with a culprit other than climate change.””

NEWS.COM.AU

‘An event of an unprecedented magnitude’: Scientists stumped by die-off of Africa’s oldest baobabs

“The trees, aged between 1,100 and 2,500 years and some as wide as a bus is long, may have fallen victim to climate change, the team speculated.”

CNN

Baobab tree deaths linked to climate change

“It’s still unclear what is driving the baobab deaths. The authors believe that climate change is the culprit.”

USA TODAY

Baobabs, Africa’s oldest trees, dying — scientists suspect climate change as killer

“A study published Monday found eight of the 13 oldest trees in Africa have died over the past decade, and the authors suggest climate change may affect the ability of the baobab to survive.”

UPI

One by one, Africa’s oldest baobab trees are dying

“… scientists argue the deaths are not a matter of coincidence, but proof of a pattern — a pattern they believe is explained by climate change.”

DW

Africa’s oldest baobab trees dying at ‘shocking’ rate

“Some of Africa’s largest and oldest baobab trees appear to be dying off at an alarming rate, according to a new study. Aged between 1,100 and 2,500 years, researchers suspect climate change as a cause.”

NATURE

Africa’s majestic baobab trees are mysteriously dying

“The researchers found no signs of an epidemic or disease, leading them to suggest that changing climates in southern Africa could be to blame — but they stress that more research is needed to confirm this idea.”

and from 2 years ago:

REUTERS – Intel – July 4, 2016

Amid drought, mystery disease kills Zimbabwe’s baobabs

“Initially the disease attacked damaged trees but it’s spreading to other trees. And the disease is spreading very fast,” warned Lawrence Nyagwande, who heads Environment Africa, a non-governmental organisation in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland province.   He said there was little research available on what is causing the disease – suspected to be caused by one or more fungus species – or how to stop it from spreading.“

If you want to read the most even handed report, read the Smithsonian piece, which is a synopsis of some of the others as well as the original study.

WHAT WAS THE STUDY ABOUT?

The original study is titled: The demise of the largest and oldest African baobabs  by Adrian Patrut et al.  The full study is pay-walled but the DOI is 10.1038/s41477-018-0170-5 and there is a  Nature.com  article here.

The interesting thing is what the study is actually about.  As you may have already guessed, it is not about the cause or causes of the dying baobabs of Africa.

The lead summary paragraph — this is a Brief Communication so it has no formal abstract —  starts with this:

 “The African baobab is the biggest and longest-living angiosperm tree. By using radiocarbon dating we identified the stable architectures that enable baobabs to reach large sizes and great ages.”

It is a study that attempts to establish the true ages of what are considered to be the oldest baobabs  using radiocarbon dating.  Dating baobabs is tricky, and controversial, because of their unusual growth pattern  (not everyone agrees with their dating methods (see some of the stories linked):

“…big African baobabs are always  multistemmed. The majority of baobabs start growing as single-stemmed  trees. Over time, single-stemmed individuals become  multistemmed, owing to the baobabs’ ability to periodically produce  new stems, in much the same way other tree species produce branches. With this special ability, baobabs develop architectures of increasing complexity over time.”

The summary paragraph then gives us this report:

“We report that 9 of the 13 oldest and 5 of the 6 largest individuals have died, or at least their oldest parts/ stems have collapsed and died, over the past 12 years;  the cause of the mortalities is still unclear.”

The authors report their findings on the ages of the 12 oldest baobabs, following the study design and methods appended to the study (if one has access or obtains the full study in pdf form via its DOI) which range from 850  to over 2,500 years.

After detailing their findings on ages of the trees and which ones have collapsed and/or died over the last decade, the authors offer us this:

“The deaths of the majority of the oldest and largest African baobabs over the past 12 years is an event of an unprecedented magnitude.  These deaths were not caused by an epidemic and there has also been a rapid increase in the apparently natural deaths of many other mature baobabs.  We suspect that the demise of monumental baobabs may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular.  However, further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition.”

All the hub-bub over “killer climate change” results from the stated “suspicion” of the authors.   It is not true that  “further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition”.  There has not been any research about baobabs and local climate, baobabs and local temperatures, baobabs and local rainfall or local drought.  None at all.  Certainly not in this study — though there is sociological research showing that local peoples depend on the baobabs to provide food during the historically frequent droughts experienced in these areas, which implies that baobabs are drought survivors.

The article in Nature.com is a bit more skeptical than the study authors on the climate claim:

“Local experts welcomed the technique for dating baobabs, but some were sceptical of the team’s findings about the die-off. Michael Wingfield, a plant pathologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, says that the team’s sample was small and did not provide evidence that baobabs are not afflicted by an epidemic. “We know very little about baobab health,” Wingfield says. “There is much more to this picture than purely the fact that the oldest trees are dying.”

Sarah Venter, a baobab specialist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, says that her team’s ongoing research shows that baobabs may not be as drought resistant as previously thought — and this could be the cause of the deaths. But lower tolerance for drought would affect all the trees, not just the largest and oldest ones, she says.”

 

NPR reports

Baobabs, especially old ones, can be more vulnerable to drought than their grizzled appearance might suggest, says David Baum, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But more evidence is needed, he says, to strengthen the link between climate change and the baobab deaths.

Other factors, including human interference with individual trees (installing a cocktail bar, for example), could also be responsible.

In any case, Baum said in an email, “it is very likely that human actions, whether by changing the local landscape or altering global climate, have contributed to the death of so many large baobabs.”

These older baobabs, with cavities in the center or a ring of trunk(s) have been used for everything from jails to cocktail lounges.   Their very notoriety has brought an unending stream of tourists to many of them  —  and the use of them for folk rites and as bars, stores, jails and restaurants — to the result that thousands of people visit these trees and walk around on the soil above their root zone.  This fact alone could account for the demise of the oldest, most famous baobabs — see this paper “Soil Compaction & Trees:  Causes, Symptoms & Effects” by Dr. Kim D. Coder (University of Georgia July 2000).    Many arboretums, National Parks, local parks featuring famous trees have found that the celebrity of a tree can bring about its demise.  Foot traffic leads to compaction of soils and “crusting”:

[from the paper linked just above}

Crusting…..a damaged top surface layer of the soil or a top seal on a soil column. Crusting is the dislocation and packing of fine particles and organic matter on the soil surface. In addition, natural products and pollutants can be associated with the surface making a hydrophobic surface, and preventing water and oxygen infiltration. Primary causes of crusting is the impact of rain drops on open soil surfaces, irrigation impacts, and animal and pedestrian traffic.  Small local impacts on the soil surface help facilitate crusting.

For those interested, this piece in the Chicago Tribune is a little less scientifically dense on the topic of soil compaction and its effects on trees.

It is a shame that these ancient venerable trees did not receive the protection from their local or national governments that they deserved — a little care, reasonable regulations restricting inappropriate commercial use, forbidding bark stripping and other intentional damage and requiring biota-friendly tourism would perhaps have saved these trees that had struggled and survived  for so long.

For the authors of this study, and the echo-chamber MSM (mostly, not all) to blame a cause over which we have no control (at least infinitely little control),  a cause for which there no evidence whatever was sought or found,  is a scientific and journalistic failure. My congratulations to those journalists that did not fall into the trap set for them by the journal Nature Plants, a trap set by allowing the authors to report a cause not investigated.  

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Author’s Comment Policy:

Aren’t you glad that Anthony Watts has dedicated so much of his time, money and effort to keep this site up and running? I am grateful that every time the itch-to-write strikes I have a journalistic outlet that will publish my work to people who are curious and respectful of the ideas of others.

I enjoy reading and responding to your [on topic] comments.  The topic of this essay ranges from poorly considered writing of a paper in which the authors allowed themselves to “speculate” about an uninvestigated cause to the deplorable journalistic practice of passing on, even magnifying, such errors.

Address your comments to “Kip…” if you hope for a reply.

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86 thoughts on “Is Climate Change Killing the Baobabs? Nope, even the study authors don’t make the claim!

  1. Kip,
    I cannot tell you how immensely grateful I am for your response to the MSM baobab fiction. I admit that I am simply too lazy (and exhausted) to independently investigate every wild-eyed regurgitation of climate crap promulgated by the irresponsible (or worse) broadcast and print media.

    I second your commendation and thanks to our indefatigable host, Anthony Watts.

    • John ==> Its a hobby for me in my retirement years — when I was younger I’d just get mad and rant and rail about it (which my wife grew tired of pretty quickly….). writing about it let’s off the steam.

    • Yes! Thanks, Kip for … curating (word of the year) … EACH of these articles and their dishonest quotations. It is actually quite shocking when presented in this comprehensive manner. Proving that these “science” journals are simply Scribes for the AGW Political Lobby.

  2. If we had MSM in medieval times, ‘Climate Change’ would read ‘Witchcraft’. And is just as likely to be true.

    • Norewgian ==> Yes, that old witchcraft was responsible for every unexpected frost, early snowstorm, and the well going dry….

    • Good comment. Soil crusting seems much more likely, but those evil witches, uh, I mean oil companies are still at fault.

      • I remember watching a program about the team that look after the trees at Kew Gardens. They had to remove an ashfelt path and replace it with a more permeable one also they drove a lance into the ground around the tree and broke up the soil structure using compressed air before injecting a solution of nutrients and a symbiotic fungus to help improve the health of a much visited tree. The following year there were visible signs of improvement in the trees health. There was even talk of using the same method on some trees of national importance around the country.

        James Bull

    • And yet we currently HAVE an ACTIVE volcano into which they could start tossing we Deniers to appease the gods of Gaia. I believe this ancient practice predates the era of Witchcraft. I am surprised the AGW Fanatics haven’t gone all Stone Age on our asses … and dropped us into the gaping Kilauea vents

    • Absolutely. In past centuries climate change was literally blamed on witchcraft.
      During the Little Ice Age the weather was far more extreme than today. Compared to the LIA, we have been fortunate to live in far more benign weather conditions. The biggest storm in the UK’s history was at the beginning of the eighteenth century (1702 if my memory is correct). The weather really was extreme: often hailstorms were severe enough to kill unprotected cattle, and some storms killed tens of thousands.

      Many people believed that the weather was so bad that it couldn’t be natural and had to be the fault of mankind – does that sound familiar? There was a very convenient group of victims who could be blamed: witches. They were accused of the crime of “weather cooking”. Countless thousands of innocent people were executed for this fantasy crime.

      Today the equivalent victims are climate sceptics. At least they don’t get executed, so I suppose we have evolved – but not much.
      Ironically, there is one important difference between then and now: during the LIA the weather really was extreme, though of course we now know it was natural, and today the weather is relatively benign, with the overall intensity of hurricanes falling over recent decades. Catastrophic extreme weather only exists in newspaper headlines and green propaganda, it doesn’t exist in the science or the real world.

      Hopefully sanity will return – before these climate morons really do start executing sceptics!
      Chris

  3. Every time I see “species X is dying off” stories, I wonder if the widely-spread individuals are being affected by the same disease – spread by researchers who travel around without disinfecting themselves before approaching their subjects.

    “Hey, the frogs in the small area of Panama are dying from a fungal disease! Let’s go study more populations!” (travels to Brazil) “Hey, a week after we got to Brazil, the frogs we’re studying are dying from a fungal disease, too! It must be Climate Change (TM)!”

    • Chad ==> I have had personal communication with a herpetologist who claims they had “always disinfected their equipment between field studies”….but there is a journal paper that claims otherwise.

    • Chad, for years the death of frogs in the tropics was blamed on pesticides. Yet when populations being studied were dying in areas with no pesticide use it was only then that they believed it was a fungus. I tracked the issue for several years since some of the pesticides in question were used for mosquito control here in the USA. Last I heard while still working on the issue was that the fungus was airborne and circumtropical. I had speculated at the time that the fungus was more probably spread by the scientists doing the studies. The latest thing I heard on the issue was that it was AGW but no one was speculating as to the exact mechanism. Problem begins when a “scientist” leaves behind good Scientific Method and testing the null hypothesis.

      • For awhile, ozone depletion was being blamed for the demise of frogs and other amphibians that preferred shade over direct sunlight. Whatever fits the current meme and brings in grant money!

      • Edwin ==> I started my web science career with this story on one of the first html web sites called The Bad Science Times. 9Used the site as part of my resume to get a job at IBM doing web sites for the Olympics).

    • There is a similar issue in New Zealand where kauri, the largest trees in the forest, are dying from a “fungus-like” organism in the soil. The organism is spread by people visiting the trees, so perhaps there is something similar affecting baobabs. There is no known cure and the approach has been to stop access.

      • km ==> Thanks for the related news from NZ. Can you supply a link to the story for those wishing more information?

        • Start with this link from the Department of Conservation: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/pests-and-threats/diseases/kauri-dieback/
          From the link:
          “Kauri dieback can kill kauri of all ages. It’s a disease caused by a microscopic fungus-like organism, called Phytophthora agathidicida (PA). It lives in the soil and infects kauri roots, damaging the tissues that carry nutrients and water within the tree, effectively starving it to death.

          There’s currently no proven cure or treatment and nearly all infected kauri die.

          The disease is easily spread through soil movements, eg when soil is carried on dirty footwear, animals, equipment and vehicles.”

  4. I suspect parasitism, driven by a symbiotic relationship.

    The newspapers need sensational stories, and there s a danget that a major souce of these – ‘climate change’ will dry up. So they publish an umproven assertion, thus justifying a study, and more monet to be spent on the climate ‘scientists’, who will then survive, and keep on providing more sensationalism…

    It’s a classic Green natural relationship. Can I have a grant to study it?

    • Dodgy ==> I place the blame on the authors first — they should not have speculated in their paper on something they did not investigate. second on the journal for allowing the Brief Communication to be published with the “suspected” but uninvestigated cause statement in it.
      Some of the better news outlets handled the story pretty well — and contacted lotsa of other experts to get differing opinions.

      • ….I place the blame on the authors first — they should not have speculated in their paper on something they did not investigate……

        They speculated because they knew that would create sensational newspaper stories, which would then provide the justification for more study grants for themselves. And the journals published it because they depend on well-funded climate change scientists to keep their journal in profit.

        It’s a circular self-reinforcing process….

  5. Kip,
    It seems that the worst effected trees were the ones that were included in the study!!
    I wonder how the carbon dating samples were obtained? perhaps by coring right into the heart of the tree? That may explain why most of the trees they have been studying have died…

    • The oldest wood is in the core. To get at that you either cut the tree down or drill a hole and extract a sample. That creates a wound through which pathogens can enter the tree. link

      • commie ==> There are interesting details on the growth features of baobabs in the study and in some of the more scientific articles linked. Dating the baobabs is not as easy as dating an ancient redwood or oak.

    • Mark ==> The study authors were very careful not to damage the trees with their coring — disinfected and sealed the tiny holes, etc. The most striking similarity is that these are not only the oldest, but themost famous trees — meaning that they are also the most visited.

      • The idea that you can disinfect the bored holes is a fantasy since Trees for the most part that lacks sap flow, and fail to WALL off the damage WILL eventually get infected or have rot set in, WILL DIE!

        Making holes of ANY kind is damage that must be blocked off or infection or rot sets in. Go read up on trees ability to WALL off the injury.

        Trees DO NOT kill off infections, they try to SEAL IT OFF!

        Here is a simple explanation here, from Northern Woodlands

        Woods Whys: How Do Trees Heal Wounds on Trunks and Branches?

        “In order to survive, trees must overcome their injuries. But technically they don’t heal their wounds, at least not the way that human and animal bodies repair, restore, or replace damaged cells or tissue. Trees are built in layers of cells that are bound by rigid walls in a modular, compartmented way. This structure dictates their wound response.

        During each annual growth period, trees build their trunks and branches outward from a layer of actively dividing cells. Increments of new wood are added in a cone shape, enveloping the previous year’s smaller, cone-shaped increment. Picture stacked traffic pylons. Thus, trees grow ever upward and outward, in front of themselves, both in length and in girth.

        When a cell is damaged, a tree cannot go back and fix or replace it. But it can limit the damage from any given injury by containing it and excommunicating it from the rest of the still-growing tree. The trick is in sealing, not healing.”

        https://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/woods-whys-how-trees-heal

    • Mark, in the paper the authors describe the technique: “Sampling was performed using Haglöf increment borers with lengths of 0.60–1.50 m (inner diameter 0.54–1.08 cm). ”

      They described the technique for a tree (which later died) in another paper (Patrut et al 2011 – Annuls of Forest Science)… “The extant wood collected with an increment borer from cavities, at depth values exceeding 20 cm, is the original old wood which corresponds to the respective positions. Such a depth is needed for excluding successive regrowth layers triggered by cavity fires and also by a somewhat limited ability of the baobab of repairing its wounds, i.e., for closing its cavity. A 60-cm increment borer is more than sufficient for reaching the original old wood and preventing collection of any regrowth layer.”

      Hmm… limited ability to repair. They show details of the 13 boreholes all around the tree. It had been the largest Baobab in Africa – The Platland tree.

      Before we jump to the obvious conclusion that they killed the tree with their boring. They also mention: “After 1990, the new owners of the Platland farm opened a pub in the very large cavity inside stem I. Consequently, the tree has become heavily promoted as the Sunland “pub” baobab.”

      So there may have been other factors involved with this tree.

      Nevertheless, these trees have lived for hundreds (if not thousands) of years and must have suffered all kinds of attacks and damage. The coincidence of many similar trees that had been bored. Personally an alarm bell rings in my mind when I read “Several tiny wood samples…” in their paper about the deaths. Slightly unprofessional, back-side covering, language that. ‘Tiny samples” sounds like they are preparing a defence against the obvious idea that they have killed the trees themselves. Then they also say; “These deaths were not caused by an epidemic and there has also been a rapid increase in the apparently natural deaths of many other mature baobabs.” Without any citation – this is either a personal observation, heresay, or an unsubstantiated anecdote – where was the peer review? You can’t go round making these kinds of apocryphal assertions to support your argument without some evidence of their veracity. This should have been picked up and discarded in the review.

      So I think that the hypothesis that they killed these trees remains unfalsified. Until it is falsified we should prevent them from sampling any more trees.

      • Jay ==> It is certainly possible that the trees have died of “over investigation”….

      • I suppose you could bore a tree to death. I once bored someone to death with a shaggy dog story.

      • So somebody opens a pub in a cavity of a baobab tree and wonders why the tree died.

        This reminds me of the redwood tree in California whose trunk was so wide that a tunnel was carved out of it so that cars could drive through it. That tree was blown down in a storm a few years ago. Might the tree have survived the storm if the tunnel hadn’t been carved out of it, and its trunk would have been stronger?

        • Steven ==> My father drove me through that tree when I was a kid, sixty years ago. It lasted a long time, even with a tunnel. (Silly thing to do, of course, but it did promote the value of the redwoods and led to their protection across much of the State — before protection, almost all picnic tables were redwood and homes had redwood roof and siding shingles.)

  6. So the latest contrived notoriety is now going to accelerate the demise because of foot traffic and the rate change can likely be tagged to the news outlets listed above.

    • ResourceGuy ==> If you mean that the news will drive more tourists to rush to see the last of the ancient baobabs before they die too — thus killing them all the sooner — I fear that you are right.

  7. Just across the fields from me here (scary country – there be oil wells and even more scary, Fracking Protestors) you get into Sherwood Forest ‘properly’ ad will find the so-called Major Oak. A very old and wizened tree and something to do with Robin Hood.

    You cannot get near it. There is a very strong fence and warning notices.

    Because even going back to Victorian Times, so many people were coming to visit it and were trampling the soil/dirt under and around it, they were killing it. Victorian horticulturists worked that out.

    so it is here. more obvious than the nose on your face and these sensitive caring educated scientific research muppets cannot see it. Supposedly some sort of modern day elite, cannot see what the Victorians figured easily out and all they can think off is passing the buck via haha Climate Change.

    We Are Doomed

    • and for the sake of the trees – how do we get that message across?

      Those big old trees need a Total Exclusion Zone around them, at least 50% wider than the canopy of the individual trees.
      No people. No vehicles or buildings. No animals.

      And they need it NOW!!!!!

      • Peta==> Well,we are still trying to teach people to “Keep Off The Grass — signage doesn’t seem to work. — in Central Park (NY), even fences don’t work. They have a program to re-aerate compacted spoils and re-plant a special heavy-traffic grass, but often the people ignore the signs and fences and trample the newly planted grass before it really gets going.

        I suppose eight-foot chain-link fencing is in order, along with 24 hour live security…..

  8. It would also seem to be true that if in fact drought were the cause of the older trees demise the shallower rooted younger trees would be the first to show signs of drought related stresses

    • Bryan ==> Yes, several local experts brought up this point — if it was drought or climate, all of the baobabs would be suffering, not just the oldest.

  9. “Your honour: Although absolute zilch, nada, zero, zippo, nil evidence leads us to:
    Believe, suspect, speculate, look at, and what’s more – may we even say – suggest,
    That climate change is the culprit here, although it’s still unclear)”.

    Case dismissed.

  10. Every few months you see a headline that says: “World’s Oldest Person Dies”. I guess this is the tree version of that story.

  11. From previous posts here at WUWT we know that land use changes (removal of vegetation) around Mt. Kilimanjaro and in California has resulted in less humid air which has a negative effect on cloud formation and precipitation.
    In Africa the poor do not have access to any form of centralized sources of energy. They depend on open fires for cooking, heat and light. Their fuel source is wood and animal dung. Large areas of Africa have been affected from gathering firewood. The landscape is stripped of trees and brush.
    It is likely that this removal of vegetation has also removed humidity from the air. Could this land use change have an impact on Baobab trees?

    • Myron ==> Research into the causes of the demise of the old baobabs would certainly have to look at that aspect of the local environment, along with local humidity, local rainfall,local land use and land cover changes.
      The trees that died are in several different countries….not one locale.

    • Myron==> Land use change, both on a macro- and micro- level could certainly be a factor and should be investigated in subsequent researches.

  12. Remember when acid rain was predicted to by now kill off all the forest here and in Europe? Then it was determined that most of the tree death was due to disease from poor forest management, primarily fire exclusion. Yet now if you Google acid rain it is back getting the blame. The hypothesis being that anthropogenic acid rain weakens the trees making them more susceptible to disease. Yet only certain species are affected by disease and just so happen to be in areas where fire has been excluded.

  13. I am a physician and I have noticed exactly the same phenomenon among my patients. The oldest just seem to die for no apparent reason. I can’t say with certainty it is due to climate change but I have noticed that the number of people dieing each year increases in sync with the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere. By my calculations as many as 7 billion people may die before the end of this century. We need to build a model. Where is my grant money?

    • Andy……..You aren’t related to Dr Harold Shipman by any chance !
      He was experiencing a similar phenomenon amongst his elderly patients too !

  14. The study mentions that the trees that are dying are old, very large and mature. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps at least some of these trees have simply reached the end of their natural lifespans. This would be kind of like wondering why so many people are dying in a nursing home….. Obviously that wouldn’t account for all of the trees, but surely at some point, every living thing, even ancient trees, die of old age.

    And yes, I did read an article about these trees somewhere a day or two ago, and as I got further along in the article, I could just tell it was coming up – yes, the dreaded “double C” – “climate change”! it is becoming kind of like the predictable punch line at the end of a stale and un-funny joke – you know it will be there every time!

  15. It’s pretty well known that “crusting” is a killer. One great example is the protection zones put around larger trees in construction areas to keep it from happening. At the very least you have to go to the drip line of the tree and the farther from the trunk, the better.

    I have quite a few large white oaks (170 yrs old from counting rings on those that came down) on my property. The soil is southeastern US red clay which supports these and many other type of trees.

    Over the past 20 years I’ve lost 5. One to an ice storm, one to trunk damage caused by someone running into it with a car, one to a hurricane and two to straight line winds. The two due to winds were the most exposed to construction and the largest of all the trees. Although we tried to keep the trucks away from the trees, we had no choice but to expose them to heavy truck traffic. At the time we had an arborist from NC State come out to look at them. He shook his head and gave the trees about 5 years before we would start to see die off. True to his prediction both trees were declining in the 5 year period and the wind pretty much finished them off.

    • rbabcock ==> Sorry to hear about your beautiful oaks….I’ afraid humans don’t understand about trees and their root systems — you have to stay off that area as much as possible.
      Hope you have planted new trees to replace them.

  16. “…the oldest baobabs across Africa have been dying over the past dozen years, and researchers believe it’s a direct result of climate change.”

    The oldest humans have also been dying over the past dozen years.
    As have the oldest pet cats and dogs.
    And the oldest potted Chrysanthemums.
    My diagnosis is…old age.

  17. I saw the pic and immediately came up w/the real answer — it’s the elephants what done it!

    • beng135 ==> Elephants do damage the baobabs, stripping bark (and leaves when they can reach them). Humans also strip bark, which is pounded to get a fibers which can be woven into door mats to sell to tourists.

  18. Kip: they say southern Africa. Thats like saying southern Canada. From references to Zimbabwe and South Africa, I presume thats were they studying. Surely they are aware of these trees being in the Sahel – pretty droughty there.

    I mapped the geology of 30,000sq mi in Northern Nigeria in the mid 1960s in the low hot country east of the Jos Plateau, and in Sokoto Province in the NW of the country. The baobab is a scattered species ‘here and there’ but if they are down to counting low double digit numbers in southern Africa, they may be unaware that there are plenty to the north of the forest belt. They are called kuka by the Hausa. I hope that wasnt a confounding factor!

    Also, a word about our society’s OCD concerning ‘hydrating’ ourselves regularly. I was advised by a Hausa employee of the Geological Survey that the ‘Bature’ drink too much water and make themselves sick (loss of electrolites?). I experimented with drinking little water during two day compass traverses in country almost devoid of shade and during the dry season (wet season the rivers can go from bone dry to flood in an hour even when it isnt raining where you are and access was by Landrover using stream beds!

    I got used to drinking a litre during the long day after having a couple of cups of tea at breakfast and then in the evening I hydrated myself with tea and a deep cool bath (larger villages had a govt resthouse- a larger mud house with thatched roof and some furniture- an old fellow to bring sticks for a dinner fire and water to fill a concrete bath). Today at eighty, I still don’t carry about town a bottle of water as I see my fellow citizens doing.

    Oh and the baobab fruit is about the size of an NFL football and hangs on ‘cords’ a few to several meters long. It is dry inside with seeds and a cotton candy fill of cream of tarter that dissolves in a lemony explosion in your mouth. That too is a nice substitute for a drink.

    https://lantanagurl.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/baobab-fruit1.jpg

    • Gary,
      I did my Summer senior field mapping in the White Mountains, east of the Owens Valley (CA) in late-June through late-July. It was well over 100 F every day from about the time the sun came up until well after sunset. I carried two canteens and a couple of cans of soda in the field. I was clearly dehydrated at the end of the day, and spent the evening in camp re-hydrating. However, I’m pushing 80 and there appears to have been no long-term consequences of the daily hydration cycle for over 4 weeks. Like you, I drink when I’m thirsty, not because someone thinks I should be drinking water continuously. What did early sapiens do before someone invented the animal-skin canteen? Apparently the Indians of the US Southwest were not in the habit of carrying ‘canteens’ while out hunting. Even assuming that the current fad(?) of going around with a plastic bottle of water in one’s hand is good for hydration, one needs to balance that against the documented plastic particles and volatile plasticizers consumed.

      • I spent over seven years carrying mail for USPS.
        Three of those years were walking routes. i.e. My mail drops were placed in mail boxes and relay boxes along the mail route and I would walk from the Post Office to the beginning of my route, pick up relay drops and deliver mail eventually ending up back at the Post Office.

        My kit for hot days was a frozen juice box wrapped by a damp towel and kept in a gallon ziploc. I also carried a Nalgene bottle filled with water.
        I got to refill my Nalgene bottle at lunch.
        Unless I knocked on someone’s door and asked, there were no rest stops along the route. Nor is it good PR for the mailman to water people’s shrubberies. Trust me, someone is always watching!

        That meant no coffee or tea. I was primarily a tea drinker when I joined the mail service.

        1) Avoid sugar in drinks. The juice box was a mid-afternoon pickup, usually with a snack (nuts, beef jerky, etc.).

        2) Don’t drink large amounts. I tended to sip frequently to get enough water to keep some moisture in my mouth. It’s a real pain when people ask questions and the mailman has to spend several minutes getting enough moisture to speak coherently.

        Use the cool damp towel to wipe off face, neck and arms. If I only used the towel every other relay, the juice box could keep the towel cool for a few hours.

        3) On the hottest days, carry a little extra water to keep your hat, shirt, kerchief, hair damp. A wet hat, even the cheap baseball caps, makes a huge difference on very hot days.

        Since mornings were the coolest part of the day, I tried to get as much of the hills delivered before lunchtime.
        Afterwards, it required a steady slogging pace to finish the last hill sections before walking back to the P.O.
        One of the clerk substitutes (Part Time Flexible employee) tried to race through several of these same hills one hot afternoon. She sat down exhausted near the top of the hill and woke up with police cars and an ambulance. Heat exhaustion takes it’s toll! Try, to avoid inviting heat exhaustion to visit, even temporarily!

        I’ve used these tactics for rockhounding across America’s West; especially in Arizona, Nevada and Utah.
        Trying to find semi-precious opal in a gulley in Nevada near Death Valley, we experienced ridiculous levels of dry heat, causing our dampened shirts to dry within feet of the truck; a delightfully cool for an all too brief few seconds.

        Working at the Royal Peacock Opal mine in Northern Nevada, we kept a 3 gallon sprayer filled with water that we gladly shared with others. Getting sprayed by a mist on a midday Nevada summer day is delightfully chilly and very refreshing.

        Near that opal mine in Nevada is a small town, Denio.
        Denio’s gas station isn’t always in business. Face it, business is slow in small very rural dusty towns.
        Denio is one hundred miles North from Winnemucca. Include the mileage from Denio to the opal mines, hot springs, collecting rocks, and many cars have worried drivers trying to reach fossil fueled civilization on Winnemucca’s Northern extremities.

        Anyway, family drilled into us that anyone even driving across desert areas should carry a minimum of three gallons per person, along with some for the car. Those three gallons aren’t for drinking immediately, they’re for roadside emergencies.

        Cars are more reliable nowadays, but I don’t feel secure without that water and extra gasoline.

        • Now days when I’m out on foot in hot country I carry a small plastic spray bottle to mist my face and upper torso to cool off.

    • Gary Pearse ==> Thanks for the first hand report.

      From my experience hiking the Sierra Nevada I know that carrying much water is silly — its heavy and readily available. In town you’d think that there was either a water borne disease epidemic or an extreme water shortage — people carrying water around in bottles for fear they’ll die of thirst any second now. Very amusing.

      Imagine, shipping water in plastic bottles to New York from Fiji!

  19. I’m going to blame baobab demise on elephants. They will eat any woody plant they can get their trunks around. They may be polite about taking carrots out of your hands, but they’d demolish a whole apple orchard if you turned them loose.

    It’s the elephants. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. It’s as good as anyone else’s story.

  20. They turned a thousand-year-old tree into a bar, the tree died within a decade, and they blamed a miniscule change in the temperature instead of the massive change in use? Sheesh, I’d blame the tobacco smoke over climate change.

  21. > there is sociological research showing that local peoples depend on the baobabs to provide food during the historically frequent droughts experienced in these areas

    If that doesn’t scream population pressure as to a possible cause what does?

  22. Where have I heard this one before? Hmmmm …
    https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/bark-beetles-California-dead-trees-fire-risk-7390544.php

    Yep. Here in CA … vast swaths of pines are being slaughtered by the bark beetle. A bark beetle unleashed by a x-years long DROUGHT … definitively “caused” by Global Warming! Which is caused by YOUR sinful industrialization (and driving your daughter to dance practice). Nevermind the entire NORMAL and NATURAL drought cycles that come and go throughout history. Nevermind the fact that we’ve never seen THIS kind of die-off in previous drought cycles. But rather than look for REAL reasons the bark beetle is spreading … just blame it on the Globally Warmed DROUGHT. Lazy science. Lazy scholarship. The dumbing-down of our schools has led to the dumbing-down of our sciences.

  23. Fast breaking news flash !!!! The oldest human beings are dying off one-by-one on a continuous basis. No one seems to know why. They just simply die. Oh, my God, we’re all doomed!!!!!

  24. From the Nature article is this revealing statement:

    “But, surprisingly, the scientists also found that most of the oldest and largest baobabs died during the study, often suddenly between measurements. Nine of the 13 oldest, and 5 of the 6 largest, baobabs measured died in the 12-year period — “an event of unprecedented magnitude”, says the study. The researchers found no signs of an epidemic or disease, leading them to suggest that changing climates in southern Africa could be to blame — but they stress that more research is needed to confirm this idea.”
    ===========

    I wonder if the damage they caused to the trees they measured contributed to their sudden demise, or it was all just a coincidence?

    Old trees generally have little energy left to fight injuries done to them, the researchers could have used sound waves for detecting decay, but they did the old fashioned way, drill holes into the wood.

    They should have hired an ARBORIST to do the NON INVASIVE work!

  25. “Over time, single-stemmed individuals become multistemmed, owing to the baobabs’ ability to periodically produce new stems, in much the same way other tree species produce branches. With this special ability, baobabs develop architectures of increasing complexity over time.”

    ”“Local experts welcomed the technique for dating baobabs, but some were sceptical of the team’s findings about the die-off. Michael Wingfield, a plant pathologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, says that the team’s sample was small and did not provide evidence that baobabs are not afflicted by an epidemic. “We know very little about baobab health,” Wingfield says.”

    ”These older baobabs, with cavities in the center or a ring of trunk(s) have been used for everything from jails to cocktail lounges. Their very notoriety has brought an unending stream of tourists to many of them”

    Cavities large enough for rooms and even a bar!

    These fair weather new baobab expert doom prognosticators can not conclusively explain why those tree centers died before, yet the tree lived?
    A fact that the local experts have already noted.

    What is obvious in the way these doomsters describe their baobab hallucinations is:
    A) Most of the baobabs are thriving, throughout the baobab’s range.
    B) Problems are restricted to a minority of older baobab trees. Quite possibly, baobab trees suddenly immersed in human traffic.

    I’d suspect tourist latrine facilities and tourists fueled by bad quality of beer, before making a widespread every baobab tree is affected global climate change claim

    ”and the use of them for folk rites and as bars, stores, jails and restaurants — to the result that thousands of people visit these trees and walk around on the soil above their root zone. This fact alone could account for the demise of the oldest, most famous baobabs”

    Never underestimate the power of modern humans to destroy that which they do not understand!

  26. Gee I wonder why this tree died?

    https://awol.junkee.com/this-south-african-bar-is-in-a-6000-year-old-tree/2811

    Hmmm…almost all the dying trees, which seem to number just a few, are the oldest and largest trees. Maybe they are dying of “old age”. If the much younger trees were dying off, then there is a real cause for concern. I think that in a way, humans could be causing it, but there is no data that “climate change” is the cause. At least in the reports I saw stated in this article…

    • J ==>Let me see…. seems you can’t delete entirely — there has to be something in the edited comment field.

  27. Should be obvious, since the same tress flourished during the Medieval and Roman Warm Periods, which were hotter than the Modern WP so far.

  28. Hi Kip, Thanks for this. I’ve been hoping you would get to it since I tried to read the Atlantic article a couple of days ago. I got as far as “It is difficult to come up with a culprit other than climate change.” quote by the inappropriately named Professor Wise and then gave up. Sad, because Yong used to be a promising young writer, but he’s been little more than a hack for years. Anyway, root trampling/ crusting thanks to Ecotourism does seem to be a more parsimonious explanation that fits the facts that we know better than disease or climate change. Similar problem here in Queensland with the grand old gums that were left in paddocks for the cows to rest under – one by one they die off from soil compaction – or so I’ve been told by foresters. That isn’t to say that disease doesn’t get some, just that the ones the cows like are doomed.

    • DaveW ==> You’re welcome — I couldn’t pass this one up. We see the same here in the US in horse paddocks that are too small for the number of animals. One or two large oaks or maples are left for shade, and over the years the horses gathering under them pack the soil so tight that trees die and stand as ghosts. Doesn’t help that the horses rub against them and sometimes chew the bark, out of boredom, I think.

  29. I immediately questioned water use for local irrigation or other factors for their problems. However, their use by tourists hadn’t entered my mind. The lack of investigative journalism is sad. But consistent.

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