Climate

Oldest Utah newspaper: Bark-beetle driven wildfires are a vicious climate cycle

pinebeetle.gifDeseret News, owned by the Mormon Church and “usually described as moderate to conservativemay have begun the slow march toward climate reality. A story this month titled, “Bark beetles are feasting on Utah forests” begins

A vicious cycle is brewing in Utah: Bark beetles are killing a lot of trees in the state. Dead trees are fuel for wildfires, which experts say contributes to global warming. And climate change is now being blamed for an increased population of bark beetles.

The Dixie National Forest bears one of the most obvious signs in Utah of the mark being left by a tiny tree predator commonly known as the bark beetle, a wood-boring insect that in large enough numbers can decimate an entire forest.

We’re talking hundreds of thousands of acres they have basically been wiped out — pretty much the entire spruce component in the Dixie National Forest,” said Colleen Keyes, forest-health program manager for Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “It’s really something to see. You would be very surprised. It’s hard to describe until you see it — it’s just dead trees as far as the eye can see.”

The fact that bark beetles wipe out whole species of trees or are a vicious climate cycle is not suprising to Climate Progress readers (see “Nature on stunning new climate feedback: Beetle tree kill releases more carbon than fires” and “Climate-Driven Pest Devours N. American Forests“) — or to our neighbors to the north.

“The pine beetle infestation is the first major climate change crisis in Canada” notes Doug McArthur, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The pests areprojected to kill 80 per cent of merchantable and susceptible lodgepole pine” in parts of British Columbia within 10 years — and that’s why the harvest levels in the region have been “increased significantly.”

No surprise, then, that the disaster is even bigger in our most northern state, which just happens to be run by a global warming denier. As Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) explained two years ago:

Warmer, drier air, has allowed the voracious spruce bark beetle to migrate north, moving through our forests in the south-central part of the state. At last count, over three million acres of forest land has been devastated by the beetle, providing dry fuel for outbreaks of enormous wild fires. To give you some perspective, that is almost the size of Connecticut.

The beetles are slamming other Western states, too:

The largest infestation of mountain pine beetles in 20 years has hit more than a million acres of forest in northern Idaho and Montana, while 2.5 million acres in Washington face disease and insect problems.

Climate change is the culprit. Milder winters since 1994 have reduced the winter death rate of beetle larvae in Wyoming from 80 percent per year to under 10 percent.

And the carbon cycle feedback is huge, as quantified in the journal Nature, “Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change,” (subs. req’d), which just looks at the current and future impact from the beetle’s warming-driven devastation in British Columbia:

the cumulative impact of the beetle outbreak in the affected region during 2000–2020 will be 270 megatonnes (Mt) carbon (or 36 g carbon m-2 yr-1 on average over 374,000 km2 of forest). This impact converted the forest from a small net carbon sink to a large net carbon source.

No wonder the carbon sinks are saturating faster than we thought (see here) — unmodeled impacts of climate change are destroying them:

Insect outbreaks such as this represent an important mechanism by which climate change may undermine the ability of northern forests to take up and store atmospheric carbon, and such impacts should be accounted for in large-scale modelling analyses.

You can read a more recent discussion of the role the bark beetle and climate change are playing in burning down and reshaping the West in this National Wildlife Federation report, “Increased Risk of CatastrophicWildfires: Global Warming’s Wake-Up Call for the Western United States.”

It has become increasingly clear that serious policy change will come in this country only when the stark reality of human-caused global warming hits middle America. Sadly, the same visceral obviousness of climate change that may be beginning to motivate a change in thinking is itself evidence that we may have waited too long.

One final note: This catastrophic climate change impact and its carbon-cycle feedback were not foreseen even a decade ago — which suggests future climate impacts will bring other equally unpleasant surprises, especially as we continue on our path of no resistance.

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15 Responses to Oldest Utah newspaper: Bark-beetle driven wildfires are a vicious climate cycle

  1. rpauli says:

    AGW grows and grows.

    With every new discovery of one isolated problem, we discover that it is directly related to climate instability, which is caused by decades of injecting greenhouse gasses.

    We know this now, yet we continue.

    So the problem is no longer just climate instability, the problem is how humans will deal with it.

  2. paulm says:

    vaguely related….

    ‘I’m a lumberjack’
    The new face of Canada’s forestry workforce
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7600245.stm

  3. zencarver says:

    Joe:

    You write, “Sadly, the same visceral obviousness of climate change that may be beginning to motivate a change in thinking is itself evidence that we may have waited too long.”

    And then I read this paper (link below) published by the Royal Society about current emissions paths, and contemplate the enormity of the problem laid out before us…

    The paper is here: http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/publications/journal_papers/fulltext.pdf

    And I would love a post on the paper, if you get a chance. The only media reference I’ve seen to it came from the Guardian(UK):

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/15/climatechange.carbonemissions

    [JR: It is definitely on my list of things to blog about — if it weren’t for this darn election, I would’ve gotten to it already. It is a tricky article though, and I may need to pose questions to the authors before I post something.]

  4. Dano says:

    Was up in Colo’s Summit County again this past weekend. Every time I go up there I see more and more red or dead trees. Our hike on Sunday found us spying on more woodpeckers than usual as well; some mountainsides by Breck are more than half red or dead. The GF’s family hunting camp (Chaffee Co.) has plenty of firewood for us and other hunters, as the lodgepole and Engelmann are really dying fast.

    Best,

    D

  5. zencarver says:

    Dano,

    I was nearby in Jackson County recently, and the red and gray (dead) just goes on for miles. Actually, I was all over CO, NM, and UT, but the drive up 14 to Walden stands out in my mind as I was left feeling physically ill by the sight. I imagine the consequences for the wildlife, the soils (which will directly impact the aspen that move in to fill in the “void”), avalanche and rock slide dangers… They won’t be the Rockies I grew up with, and the worst is still to come.

    Zen

  6. Dano says:

    Zen,

    I was working Red Rocks Amphitheater last week for an urban forestry non-profit booth. I was struck by how many folks stopped by and praised our work because so many trees in ___ County were red or dead, and how the state will look so different for their children.

    If you want an idea of what the Colo-UT-Wyo high country will look like, look to southern British Columbia. Went hiking in Cathedral a couple of years ago and was stunned by how many hundreds of thousands of acres were bare. We’re starting to get people organized to replace with aspen as an interim successional species – there will be less recreational and aesthetic and watershed value, but at least there will be less soil erosion…

    Best,

    D

  7. Bob Wallace says:

    Looking out my windows here along the Northern California coast at 3600′ I can see bug-killed Douglas firs. Nice big trees that would have been harvestable in a few more years.

    And I’m watching less valuable tan oak and valueless poison oak creeping up higher and higher on the mountain.

    At least here in the “outside” we’re probably loosing productive timber land. Mountains do get smaller as they get taller.

  8. zencarver says:

    Dano,

    Then add me to the list of those that praise that work.

    Joe,

    Good deal, and I’m glad you plan to ask questions of the authors. One more reason that certain sources (you, realclimate, etc) are so much more reliable than most of what the MSM is throwing out these days…

    Zen

  9. caerbannog says:

    I had to fly back to upstate NY on business a few weeks ago. Had a window seat, flew directly over the Rockies on a cloudless day.

    The extent of lodgepole forest death in the Rockies (especially on the west side) is just stunning. Whole mountainsides were turning rust-red — in some cases, the dead/dying trees went on for miles and miles. I’m used to seeing patchy outbreaks of bark beetles, but this is different. What I saw was wholesale forest death in the making.

  10. Dano says:

    Killer bunny of doom:

    The experts here say almost all the lodgepoles could be gone in a decade, Wyoming a few years after that, Utah around then too. Engelmann spruce are being attacked as well.

    One of the GF’s major contributors just announced they are going to open a plant that creates cellulosic ethanol from beetle-killed trees. Let us hope there are other major markets for beetle-killed trees so the wildfire damage can be lessened. The wood is quite attractive, BTW.

    Best,

    D

  11. Mark Shapiro says:

    Is anybody cataloguing all this bark beetle death? Measuring it? Trying to find the extent of it?

    Just from the comments it’s far worse than I thought, and I read too much about it.

    And is it happening in Russia? According to http://www.borealforest.org
    2/3 of the boreal forest is in Eurasia.

  12. Earl Killian says:

    To make matters far far worse, estimates of permafrost carbon stores revised upward:
    http://www.greencarcongress.com/2008/09/permafrost-orga.html
    Maybe I didn’t add enough “far”s.

    The paper is:
    Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon to Climate Change: Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle.
    http://www.bioone.org/archive/0006-3568/58/8/pdf/i0006-3568-58-8-701.pdf
    The estimate the carbon to be 1672 Gt. Fortunately, so far they are still talking about only 0.5 to 1.0 Gt/year.

    Say it ain’t so Joe.

  13. Dano says:

    Is anybody cataloguing all this bark beetle death? Measuring it? Trying to find the extent of it?

    In Colo they are, definitely. Other places too.

    Best,

    D

  14. Pangolin says:

    There was extensive bark beetle damage and beetle killed trees observable when I was camping in Lassen National Forest earlier this summer. Possibly a major contributer of fuel load to the month of fires that started that weekend in Northern California.

  15. shop says:

    signs in Utah of the mark being left by a tiny tree predator commonly known as the bark beetle, a wood-boring insect that in large enough numbers can decimate an entire forest.