Trees migrate

What!?” you say. Wood is hard, slow growing, and rooted. Are trees sentient? Can they perceive and feel things? There is growing evidence that trees and plants have these characteristics, and are able to inform each other chemically—through soil at least—about environmental effects on a basic level.

The below link is an 18-minute TED talk from a forest scientist on her research into tree communication:

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his grand epic, The Lord of the Rings, tells of the fictional Ents, led by Treebeard, and perhaps he got the concept of sentience empathically. Fact is, when the weather changes, so do trees, and I don’t just mean the seasonal leaf cycle, winter hibernation, and spring/summer growth. Paleobotonists have studied fossilization and pollen records to determine that trees moved northward after the last Ice Age approximately 31 miles each century. This is not a speed record by our standards, but when the ice began receding 25,000 years ago, they began their slow march north. I’ll do the math for you: 806 miles—quite a feat for creatures without feet!—in the world of ecological world time.

As we are migrating north as well, we cross from a region dense with towering Sitka spruce, cedar, birch, and quaking aspens into a scene of stunted growth. The panorama around us appears as a dollhouse version of our former vista. Trees now stand diminutively four to eight feet in height, framed at their bases by a vast body of reflective water that harbors (we suspect, and soon experience) the enormous breeding ground of mosquitoes that can suck a pint of blood a day from a foraging moose.

Despite the appearance of being a boundless swampy tundra, we’ve learned that this terrain receives less than ten inches of rain per year (less than San Diego), and is considered a desert. The temperatures in this bioregion have reached a record low of -84º F. Due to permafrost, water doesn’t drain through the soil and creates inert swamp-like conditions that over time sustains the permafrost layers below. The highway we drive mirrors the dramatic stunted changes of the landscape and the roadway takes on the image of frozen ocean waves, forcing us to drive as boaters crossing each crest.

Passive education in tundra engineering presents itself to the observant driver along the Alaska Highway in the form of test sections experimenting with designs that help mitigate frost heave and bottomless sinkholes. Problematic road sections have passive or forced-air tunnels laid beneath the road grade, maintaining temperature control, and preventing permafrost melt.

Tundra takes its name from the Finnish word tunturia, meaning barren or treeless hill, and the expanse around us remains below freezing six to ten months per year. Yet, how can this be the desert that our eyes imagine a mucky bog?

There are two major mountain ranges that traverse latitudinally across Alaska, the northern Brooks Range and the southern Alaska Range. The Brooks Range, 126 million years old, extends 700 miles west to east. The Alaska Range, after the Himalayas and Andes mountains, is one of the highest ranges in the world and contains Mt. Denali (standing at 20,310 feet), and is approximately 60 million years old. Height comparisons can be deceiving, though, as Denali’s base rests 2,000 feet above sea level vs. Earth’s tallest mountain, Everest, beginning its thrust into the sky on a 14,000-foot-high plain.

These two massive mountain ranges were barriers to the Pleistocene Ice Age that covered most of North America and Canada in up to two-mile-high ice sheets, but spared the central Alaskan region known as Beringia.

The trillions of gallons of water locked up in this frozen world dropped the ocean water levels by hundreds of feet, reducing moisture flowing into the cool Alaska interior, and a land bridge was created to facilitate animal and eventual human migration. Beringia became a lost, ice-free world, a cool grassy steppe and refuge for the survival of flora and fauna, including woolly mammoths, giant bears, camels, horses, bison, scimitar cats, and muskox.

Over two decades ago we jumped at an opportunity to fly around an often-obscured and cloud-covered Mt. Denali, and land on a glacier named after Ruth (or so we like to claim).

In the presence of such a massive mountain, time and distance play tricks with the mind. Cruising toward the face of the mountain, our plane’s engine droning, I became tense as it appeared that we would be unable to make a turn that would allow us to avoid crashing into its icy walls. A quick glance at our pilot, Dave, and a comment revealing my concern evoked a laugh and a slight stick adjustment to easily swing to circle and land smoothly on the nearly blue-colored ice of the Ruth Glacier. Our “landing strip” spread out three vertical miles below the summit of Denali, in whiteness so brilliant, we would need sunglasses to prevent ice blindness.

After a short stay, we lifted off and circled over the base camp for those in the midst of their three-day acclimation period previous to climbing this daunting edifice.


Looking down from the plane’s windows on our return flight, we were stunned to see brilliant pockets of melted glacial ice as blue as any blue sky we had ever seen. Again, altitude plays tricks on the mind and what seemed to be azure blue ponds were in reality mini lakes of ancient water so clear and fresh as to boggle our already boggled minds.

The Ruth Glacier gorge is over one mile wide and drops over 2,000 feet over 10 miles of “migratory flow,” which is about three feet per day! This gorge is 9,000 feet deep, deeper than the steepest valleys of the Grand Canyon and would be one of the deepest defiles in the world if drained of ice. Reminder: a canyon is wider than it is deep, a gorge is deeper than it is wide.

Migration revisited

The life and story of our amazing pale blue dot called Earth in our solar system, is one of migration. The Earth migrates around the sun as it migrates through space at a speed of about 67,000 miles/hour. Our sun and solar system move through our galaxy at a speed of approximately 448,000 miles/hour. Let’s look at migration more microcosmically. All the continents have been migrating numerous times throughout Earth’s history, joining into super continents at least seven times before breaking apart to reform again in the vastness of incomprehensible time. All the flora and fauna on Earth have moved with these continental and weather shifts, evolving and dying away to reform in environmental context. Earth’s atmospheric hothouse has given way to full glaciation of the planet with near extinction of life in its rich history.

And what of Earth’s migratory future? Science speculates the next super continent, Pangea Proxima, (aka, Pangea Ultima) may appear like this image.

Who knows what life may exist beyond our ken? Click HERE for a short YouTube animation of the 250 million year creation of Pangea Proxima.

Studying the history of Earth as we are drawn to engage in our travels, is the ever-evolving adaptation through natural selection, all things interacting, adapting, migrating in their ecosystems. To the inquisitive mind the clarion call of Why? When? Where? How? challenges us to remember the adage, “This is this, because that is that, in an interdependent world.”