Brian Buma, Cape Horn, Integrative biology

Journey to the World’s Southernmost Tree

July 20, 2020

In January 2019, Brian Buma, PhD, set off with a 14-person crew to find the world’s southernmost tree. It’s an intimidating quest when you can’t explore every piece of the geography. But Buma, assistant professor in Integrative Biology at University of Colorado Denver, had enough maps and reports and historical documents that could pinpoint the most likely spot to Cape Horn island, near the southern tip of South America.

The National Geographic-funded expedition was a success. On a Cape Horn island plateau, after hours of measuring the tree’s relativity to its northern neighbors, the researchers crowned a windblown Magellan beech winner. National Geographic staff writer Craig Welch and photographer Ian Teh document the harrowing expedition in the article, “The tree at the bottom of the world—and the wind-blasted trek to find it.”

As Welch writes, “It’s hard to square these scraggly specimens with the exceptional lengths we’ve gone to find them. We’ve flown across oceans; chugged 32 hours by ferry; motored 10 hours more on a wooden charter boat captained by a sailor who confessed mid-journey that he’d never navigated this deadly stretch of sea. Only then did we reach our destination—Isla Hornos, Cape Horn island, the last spit of ground in Tiera del Fuego. There we’ve hiked and camped through gales that knocked us down, slipped on penguin guano, and vanished to our armpits in thickets of barberry. We’ve come all this way to map a border no scientist has mapped before. We’ve come to find Earth’s southernmost tree.”

Finding the beech was also about telling the bigger story of climate change and our migrating forests.

“This is not an end-of-the-world story,” says Buma. “This is about how the environment is responding to climate change in an out-of-the-way, pristine place.”

Listen to an interview with Buma and Welch about their adventure on National Geographic’s Overheard podcast.