Up until August 2006, the tallest known tree in the world was a 369-foot California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) nicknamed ‘Stratosphere Giant’, located somewhere in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California. To give you some idea about its massive size, that’s twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, minus the foundation.
But the Giant lost its status when two naturalists, Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor, stumbled upon group of trees in California’s Redwood National Park that were taller than any they’d ever seen before. They made preliminary measurements using professional laser equipment based on goniometry, and found not one, not two, but three trees that were taller than the Stratosphere Giant.
The tallest of the lot, named Hyperion, was found to be a good 10ft taller than the Giant, standing at a whopping a 379 ft. When Atkins and Taylor announced their discovery, a team of scientists led by Humboldt State University ecologist Steve Sillett arrived at the park to measure it again in September 2006. They were aiming for more accuracy, so they actually used a tape this time. They actually climbed to its very top and dropped the tape to the ground. The epic stunt was filmed for National Geographic.
“The best way to measure tree height is to climb to the top and lower a tape, with a weight, straight to the ground,” Sillett explained in the video. Of course, this wasn’t the easiest way, given that Hyperion’s lowest branches are at least 25 stories high. To get to the top, Sillett and his team used a powerful crossbow to launch a fishing line up and over the tree branches. They then used the line to hoist his climbing rope into the tree. Once the rope was in place, Sillett worked his way up the tree. Over the course of a couple of hours, dropping the tape around about every 100 meters, the team confirmed what Atkins and Taylor originally discovered. They declared the tree the tallest in the world at 379.1 ft.
But what many people don’t know is that Hyperion is still around today by sheer luck. Only a few hundred feet from its base is a clearcut dating back to the 70’s. Clearcutting is a forestry practice in which all trees in an area are logged and the entire area is devastated. Mere weeks before the loggers reached the majestic giant, the valley it calls home was declared a national park during the Carter administration. However, most redwoods were not so lucky. In the 1970’s, 15% of America’s redwood forest had been logged, and nowadays only 4% still exist.
By tree standards, Hyperion is still young and growing vigorously. Steve Sillett thinks it’s only 600 years old, which is around 20 in human years. Hopefully it will live to see old age.
Hyperion’s exact location has never been disclosed, in order to protect it from curious tourists who might try to climb it or otherwise damage it. As Sillett puts it, trees are not like people, “they cannot run away from paparazzi,” and history has taught us that bad things happen to trees that become too popular.