Oldest Utah newspaper: Bark-beetle driven wildfires comprise a vicious climate cycle
Deseret News, owned by the Mormon Church and “usually described as moderate to conservative” may 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 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 are “projected 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 Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) 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 [PDF].
And the carbon cycle feedback is huge, as quantified in the journal Nature, “Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change,” ($ub. req’d), while 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 modeling 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 [PDF], “Increased Risk of Catastrophic Wildfires: 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.