This 1,000-year-old oak tree survived Hurricane Harvey

 



Hurricane Harvey first made landfall in the town of Rockport, Texas last Friday night. The 108 mph winds and more than 40 inches of rain destroyed houses, churches and schools. But a 1,100-year-old oak tree was left standing at Goose Island State Park.

“This is not the first hurricane it’s sat through,” says David Appel, a plant pathologist at Texas A&M University.

The “Big Tree” has a diameter of 11 feet and a circumference of more than 35 feet. The community of Rockport has appreciated the tree for more than a hundred years, calling in experts like Appel to help care for it. And it’s not the only tree that survived—many younger, less remarkable live oaks survived the hurricane. And, with the way the climate is changing, some of them may thrive there for another 1,000 years.

One bit of good news: Texas Parks & Wildlife reports that 1,000-year-old Big Tree survived the hurricane.

A post shared by Texas Highways Magazine (@texashighways) on

Areas that already have plenty of rainfall, like East Texas, should expect to see more. Trees that can withstand more extreme wind, temperatures, and fire could benefit from the extra water. In one experiment in Boston, researchers planted 12 different species of trees and watched how each dealt with increased heat. The researchers gave some a little more water than nature would provide, and other trees less. They found that the warmer temperatures made moisture more important. “A dryer year can really stress out the plants,” said Jeffrey Dukes, a forestry researcher at Purdue University and a leader on this project. “In a wet year, the plants can grow really, really well.”

These changes aren't just affecting Texas. The habitats where oak trees are able to thrive are creeping up the states, while the areas where spruce and pine come out on top are shrinking, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A lot of it is predictable,” says Dukes. “Not good news, but what we basically expected would happen in a changing climate.”

24 PHOTOS
Aerial photos of Harvey's destruction
See Gallery
Aerial photos of Harvey's destruction
Vehicles sit amid leaked fuel mixed in with flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in the parking lot of Motiva Enterprises LLC in Port Arthur, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Railway lines are seen surrounded by flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey near Sandy Point, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. Picture taken August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A military vehicle evacuates about two dozen residents from the Autumn Chase Park apartments while pushing its way through flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Houses are seen partially submerged in flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. Picture taken August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey are seen in a farm field in this aerial photograph taken above Angleton, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Unprecedented flooding from the Category 4 storm that slammed into the state's coast last week, sending�gasoline prices�surging as oil refineries shut, may also set a record for rainfall in the contiguous U.S., the weather service said Tuesday. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Residents wade with their belongings through flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey while awaiting rescue in Northwest Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Cattle graze around flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey near Sandy Point, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. Picture taken August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Cars pass through flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey along Tanner Road in West Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. Picture taken August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Planes are surrounded by flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey at the West Houston Airport in Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Houses are seen partially submerged in flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. Picture taken August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Ranch land covered with floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey is seen in this aerial photograph taken above Angleton, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Unprecedented flooding from the Category 4 storm that slammed into the state's coast last week, sending�gasoline prices�surging as oil refineries shut, may also set a record for rainfall in the contiguous U.S., the weather service said Tuesday. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Residents move through flood waters brought by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. Picture taken August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A rail line with cars are seen atop Buffalo Bayou flooded by Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. Picture taken August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A timber yard stands surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in this aerial photograph taken above Angleton, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Unprecedented flooding from the Category 4 storm that slammed into the state's coast last week, sending�gasoline prices�surging as oil refineries shut, may also set a record for rainfall in the contiguous U.S., the weather service said Tuesday. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 30: Flooded homes are shown near Lake Houston following Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. The city of Houston is still experiencing severe flooding in some areas due to the accumulation of historic levels of rainfall, though the storm has moved to the north and east. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Interstate 45 stands surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in this aerial photograph taken above Texas City, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Unprecedented flooding from the Category 4 storm that slammed into the state's coast last week, sending�gasoline prices�surging as oil refineries shut, may also set a record for rainfall in the contiguous U.S., the weather service said Tuesday. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 30: A jet ski drives along streets as flood waters surround houses and apartment complexes in West Houston, TX on Wednesday, Aug 30, 2017. Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Houses are seen partially submerged in flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 30: Flood waters and pollution surround buildings in West Houston, TX on Wednesday, Aug 30, 2017. Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Caterpillar Inc. construction equipment is seen immersed in floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in this aerial photograph taken above West Columbia, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Unprecedented flooding from the Category 4 storm that slammed into the state's coast last week, sending�gasoline prices�surging as oil refineries shut, may also set a record for rainfall in the contiguous U.S., the weather service said Tuesday. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Interstate 45 stands surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in this aerial photograph taken above Texas City, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Unprecedented flooding from the Category 4 storm that slammed into the state's coast last week, sending�gasoline prices�surging as oil refineries shut, may also set a record for rainfall in the contiguous U.S., the weather service said Tuesday. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A golf course stands surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in this aerial photograph taken above Texas City, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Unprecedented flooding from the Category 4 storm that slammed into the state's coast last week, sending�gasoline prices�surging as oil refineries shut, may also set a record for rainfall in the contiguous U.S., the weather service said Tuesday. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Buildings stand immersed in floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in this aerial photograph taken above Angleton, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Unprecedented flooding from the Category 4 storm that slammed into the state's coast last week, sending�gasoline prices�surging as oil refineries shut, may also set a record for rainfall in the contiguous U.S., the weather service said Tuesday. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

This is not the first time the oaks have dealt with climate change, though no change has ever occurred as rapidly as it is happening today. During the last Ice Age, 2.4 million years ago, glaciers pushed the oaks into a small region in what is now Florida. Then, 15,000 years ago, they expanded northward as the Earth began to warm.

Oaks have special genetic adaptations that allow them to continue multiplying throughout the unexpected. There are 225 species of oaks in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. These species can mix to form fertile hybrids, while also keeping the original species separate. In the animal kingdom, this would be like mules—which are the offspring of donkeys and horses—becoming their own separate species, while donkeys and horses both continued to exist separately. This quirk makes it hard to breed oaks consistently—no one knows exactly what offspring will look like—but it makes them particularly prepared to adapt. Genetic diversity protects the larger group, because populations killed off by particular threats can be replaced by closely-related lineages that have developed resilience.

But climate change does pose at least a few dangers to oaks: pathogens and parasites. Winter’s lowest temperature continues to rise in most places around the U.S., and so bugs can survive where normally they would have frozen. Beetles, wasps, moths, funguses and bacteria are currently harassing trees all over the country. And, of course, the trees are vulnerable to more extreme droughts, like the one that threatened Goose Island State Park in 2015. That's been the most dangerous event for the Big Tree in the past several years, says caretaker Jack Swayze of Davey, a tree consulting company.

Whatever the future holds, live oaks — and the Big Tree in particular — will no doubt continue to play a role in the Texas community. “Live oaks are near and dear to the hearts of Texans,” says Appel. “They represent a feeling of endurance.”

Read Full Story