200 Feet Up a Redwood

researcher climbing a redwoods tree
Steve Sillett climbing up a tall double redwood in Del Norte County. Photo by Emily Burns.

Harness cinched. Helmet buckled. Camera and notebook tucked in tightly. Knowing this was one of the last days this spring to collect coast redwood canopy data, we scurried up climbing ropes into the leafy forest canopy of Del Norte County.

With my research colleagues from Humboldt State University, we got busy measuring the size and shape of the enormous redwood we dangled from in order to estimate how much carbon dioxide is locked up in the wood of this ancient tree.  The size and shape of each redwood tells a story of how the forest treated the tree as it grew. For some of the oldest redwoods, centuries of wind storms, lightning, and competition with neighboring trees have caused the truck to split and bifurcate multiple times, creating a castle-like crown that thrusts skyward.

forest floor
A view down to the forest floor from 200 feet up in the redwood crown. Photo by Emily Burns

It’s difficult to estimate the dimensions of a gnarly redwood from the ground because the tree’s branches and multiple trunks are often hidden from view by legions of fluttering leaves. When hanging in the canopy however, we could easily work in pairs to measure segments of the redwood crown. Using this research technique developed by Steve Sillett, we will soon decode just how much carbon this tree is storing hundreds of feet above the forest floor.

Steve and his colleagues have collected these data in forests throughout the coast redwood and giant sequoia ranges as part of our Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. We’re curious, will the redwoods continue to grow quickly and sequester lots of carbon as climate changes around them?

person writing on a notebook, forest in the background
Marie Antoine records data on the size and shape of redwood branches and trunks to estimate carbon stored in this massive redwood.

About the author

Emily Burns, the League’s former Director of Science, led the research program that includes the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. She holds a PhD in Integrative Biology on the impacts of fog on coast redwood forest flora from the University of California, Berkeley.

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