Warmer winters are creating an ideal habitat for pine beetles in New Jersey — a state where subzero temperatures used to kill them off each winter. In the past, temperatures of negative 8 degrees Fahrenheit would finish off most of the state’s pine beetles, but the last time temperatures got that cold in the Pinelands was 1996. Now, as the New York Times reports, the beetles have killed tens of thousands of trees in New Jersey’s ecologically diverse Pinelands since an outbreak was first discovered in 2001.
In the southern U.S., where pine beetles were concentrated before winter temperatures began increasing, the beetles have been kept in check by thinning forests that get too overgrown and conducting controlled burns. Some are advocating that response in New Jersey, but previous legislation aimed at similar management was vetoed in the state. Now, the state is working toward developing a new plan to try to control the beetle outbreak — a plan that needs to come soon, as scientists worry that without effective management, the beetle could spread to coastal pine forests in Long Island and Cape Cod.
“This is a big deal, and it’s going to forever change the way forests have to be managed in New Jersey, Matthew P. Ayres, a Dartmouth biologist who studies pine beetles, told the New York Times.”
Unfortunately, New Jersey’s beetle outbreak hasn’t gotten as much attention as outbreaks in other states. New Jersey’s Pinelands are flat — not hilly — so the extent of the damage done by the beetles can only be seen by air. This means public pressure on the issue hasn’t been as strong in New Jersey as in other states, where mountainsides ravaged by the beetle are on display for all to see.
“It’s a tremendously serious issue, but it hasn’t gotten anybody’s attention,” New Jersey State Senator Bob Smith (D) told the New York Times.
The pine beetle outbreak in New Jersey is just one of many beetle outbreaks decimating North American forests. In Colorado, drought and warm weather are creating optimal conditions for spruce beetles. Mountain pine beetles are killing huge swaths of ponderosa, whitebark, lodgepole, Scotch, and limber pines in all 19 western U.S. states and Canada, decimating approximately 88 million acres of forest as of May 2013 — an insect outbreak that may be the largest ever seen in North America. And the beetles aren’t just killing off forests that are home to a variety of species — by killing trees that store vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the beetles are creating a positive feedback loop that worsens and accelerates climate change.