Ancient trees that supplied Notre-Dame’s roof no longer exist for rebuilding

Damage in the interior of Notre-Dame. Photo: Philippe Wojazer

After Monday’s tragic fire that ravaged Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed that “the worst has been avoided” and vowed to immediately begin the process of rebuilding the 856-year-old church. While the main structure of the cathedral survived, the wooden roof was destroyed and replacing it with comparable oak will be impossible as France no longer has trees big enough to replace the beams. As Fortune explained, the wood for the ceiling was “first felled around 1160 to 1170, with some of it coming from trees thought to be 300 to 400 years old at the time they were chopped. That puts the oldest timber in the cathedral at nearly 1,300 years old.” Bertrand de Feydeau, vice president of the preservation group Fondation du Patrimoine, explained that trees which supplied the roof’s frame came from primary forests—forests that are largely untouched by human activity, and he surmised that the huge trees associated with primary forests are gone too.

Only 4% of Europe’s remaining woodland is primary forest (old growth), according to a study published last May, with none larger than 500 square kilometers outside of Russia or Northern Europe. In France specifically, while forest covers nearly 1/3 of country, just .01% of it is primary forest that contains trees between 200-400 years old. 

In addition to the fact that old growth trees are no longer available to rebuild the roof of Notre-Dame, pollution has been compromising the structure for many years as well. As Weather.com reported, “flying buttresses that support the entire cathedral have been darkened by pollution and eroded by rainwater and acid rain has eaten away at limestone decorations. Gargoyles, originally designed to carry rainwater away from the building, have fallen off the building.” The stone of the cathedral has become eroded in large part due to the pollution resulting from traffic congestion in Paris. 

Why This Matters: While the fire at Notre-Dame was not connected to climate change, the phenomenon will nonetheless put countless landmarks we cherish at risk (like the Statue of Liberty here in the United States, or Peru’s Machu Pichu). If we want to protect the greatest testaments of human civilization and leave them for our children and grandchildren to cherish then we must become far better stewards of our planet and work to curb climate change and protect our land, air, and water. We cannot allow the heartache that was witnessed around the world in response to Notre-Dame to become the norm.

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