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Researchers found a tree in the Amazon nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty

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The Current14:09A quest to find the Amazon’s tallest tree

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When Brazilian forest engineer Eric Bastos Görgens stood at the base of an Amazon tree he had been scouting for three years, he couldn’t help but reflect on the tree’s magnitude — and his size in comparison.

“The first idea that came in my mind is how small I am [and] the feeling of how small we are in front of such powerful nature,” he told The Current guest host Susan Ormiston. 

The tree in question, which belongs to the species Dinizia excelsa, overshadows the rest of the surrounding Amazon forest. Although a tree from the species typically reaches 50 to 60 metres high, this tree measures 88.5 metres tall — almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

“This is what impressed us initially,” he said. “We expect that the canopy of the forest reaches 45 metres high in their reach.”

“When we look at the literature … some researchers mention heights about 60, 70 metres, but nothing like 88 metres like we found. So double of the average canopy.”

WATCH: Drone footage of the Amazon tree

The tree was located in a remote part of the forest, and it was unlikely anyone had seen the tree before Görgens’ expedition. 

It took Görgens and his crew of 19 other researchers eight days to get from Laranjal do Jari, Brazil, to the tree in September 2022. They braved violent river rapids, and made long treks through the dense forest and across mountain ranges.

But it was all worth it in the end. “It’s a real majesty,” Görgens said.

Their journey to the tree was documented and published by the journal Nature earlier this month.

A second chance

Although the tree hadn’t been seen in-person until last fall, Görgens knew of its existence as early as 2018.

Back then, Görgens was studying height measurements of the forest collected by a Cessna airplane. According to Nature, the place carried a lidar device that would send out laser pulses and measure the time it took those reflections to return, creating a 3D portrait of the forest.

“So during the processing, we can compute and determine the height of the vegetation over this terrain,” he said. “And during that time we discovered some big trees in the Amazon.”

Trees stand in a partially deforested section of the Amazon rainforest near Alto Paraiso, Brazil. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Görgens and his team reported the discovery in 2019 — the same year they embarked on their first expedition to see the tree in person.

“Everything was very complex in the beginning because the tree is located in a very remote region of the Amazon forest,” he said.

“We [didn’t have] any clue about how to get [to] it. So I started to connect with colleagues working at the Amazon and trying to find the best way to approach that tree.”

That way ended up being a long, multi-day journey by boat and foot. Unfortunately, they were forced to turn back after two days — just five or so kilometres away from the tree.

“This decision was the more safer one, but was terrible to do that call because we are very close to the tree,” he said.

“Everybody was very tired and we had some medical situation … so we needed to call these through to abort the mission and plan to do it again later.”

Görgens said the first expedition helped them prepare better for the second mission in September — but nonetheless, it was still a complex journey.

“[Every] time you go to the forest … is a box of surprise,” he said. “So you need a lot of good moods to face all the challenges you have in front of you.”

Smoke rises from a forest fire in the Transamazonica highway region, in the municipality of Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sept. 17, 2022.
Smoke rises from a forest fire in the municipality of Labrea, Brazil. (AP)

An expedition for science

Part of the reason why Görgens made the expedition to the tree is to collect samples. With these samples, they can analyze the tree’s age and its capacity to store carbon.

Görgens said this tree as well as others in the area are currently under threat by human activity and extreme drought, and that is putting a lot of stress on the trees. 

WATCH: What lies ahead for the Amazon under President Lula?

What lies ahead for the Amazon under President Lula?

Jan. 2, 2023 | New year, new president; Brazil swore in Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Jan. 1, 2023. Andrew Chang talks to international climate producer Jill English about what lies ahead for Lula in the fight to protect the most biodiverse place on the planet.

“Can you imagine how difficult it is to a tree to get water from the ground … and move this water to the upper part of the canopy, especially if you are 88 metres high?” he said.

“When we are facing more and more extreme events related to climate, we are giving much more stress to those trees, that the tree will die and fall.”

Still, Görgens feels optimistic, in part because Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva vows to protect more of the Amazon forest. Former president Jair Bolsonaro was widely criticized for allowing large parts of the Amazon to be cleared, cut and burned while he was in office.

“Our moment is much better than some years ago, and I believe that we are returning to discuss and to put the environment as [an] important discussion topic in our society again,” he said.



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