The New York Times blows the bark beetle story
The so-called paper of record ran a major story Tuesday on the country’s most infamous climate-driven pest, “Bark Beetles Kill Millions of Acres of Trees in West.” Great story, other than neglecting to mention climate change. It’d be like an article on an outbreak of avian flu that left out any discussion of birds.
So we have the national “liberal” media, like the NYT and NBC blowing this story, while the local, conservative media get it right, see “conservative San Diego Union knows climate change is killing Western forests” and “Oldest Utah newspaper: Bark-beetle driven wildfires are a vicious climate cycle.”
Of course, the journal Nature understands the science, as an April article made clear: “Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change.” So does the Canadian media: “Climate-Driven Pest Devours Canada’s Forests.”
The NYT did get the grim, superficial facts of the story right:
From New Mexico to British Columbia, the region’s signature pine forests are succumbing to a huge infestation of mountain pine beetles that are turning a blanket of green forest into a blanket of rust red. Montana has lost a million acres of trees to the beetles, and in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming the situation is worse.
“We’re seeing exponential growth of the infestation,” said Clint Kyhl, director of a Forest Service incident management team in Laramie, Wyo., that was set up to deal with the threat of fire from dead forests. Increased construction of homes in forest areas over the last 20 years makes the problem worse.
Yeah, home building is the cause of this problem — that’s why in Alaska, “over three million acres of forest land has been devastated by the beetle,” as senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) described in a May 2006 speech on climate change. Seriously, that is pretty much the only explanation the NYT story offers, although the accompanying video does inch much closer to the truth, strangely enough.
The video blames the explosion of bark beetles on extended drought and warming winters — but fails to point out that both of those are predicted consequences of global warming. The video does point out, “The beetle problem can also worsen global warming!” Amazing. Back to the story:
In Wyoming and Colorado in 2006 there were a million acres of dead trees. Last year it was 1.5 million. This year it is expected to total over two million. In the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the problem is most severe. It is the largest known insect infestation in the history of North America, officials said. British Columbia has lost 33 million acres of lodgepole pine forest, and a freak wind event last year blew mountain pine beetles, a species of bark beetle, over the Continental Divide to Alberta. Experts fear that the beetles could travel all the way to the Great Lakes.
If only we had a clue why this was all happening, and what it all means …
Wildfire is the biggest threat. Some towns like Steamboat Springs and Vail, Colo., are surrounded by dead forests, and the Forest Service and logging companies are clear-cutting “defensible space” so firefighters have a place to fight fires.
After the trees die, the risk of crown fires that move through the canopy is the threat. After four or five years, as the dead trees fall to the ground, the threat of catastrophic fire is most severe. Fires in the piles of logs severely damage soils, prevent regrowth and cause mudslides.
The end of this sad story is especially poignant:
The West that depends on tourism, meanwhile, wonders what their customers will think about the dramatic change in scenery. Four million visitors a year come for sightseeing and recreation to Grand County in Colorado, where much of the forest is now dead. “What happens,” said Ray Jennings, director of emergency management for Grand County, “if this becomes an ugly place to be?”
That could well be an epitaph for the whole damn country if Big Media continues to fail in what should be one of its central tasks today, explaining to the public that climate change is hitting this country hard right now — making droughts longer and stronger, spreading pests, destroying forests, driving the worst wildfire seasons in recorded history.
I hope the new Obama administration recognizes that educating the public — and perhaps even educating the media — on the painful reality of global warming must be one of its top priorities. More on that later.
(Note: Regular readers can skip the rest of this post. For those who haven’t read one of my previous stories on the bark beetle, I’m going to repeat my discussion on what scientists understand about the causes.)
Global warming has created a perfect climate for these beetles — 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 hotter, drier summers have made trees weaker, less able to fight off beetles.
“The pine beetle infestation is the first major climate change crisis in Canada” notes Doug McArthur, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “We’re seeing changes in [mountain pine beetle] activity from Canada to Mexico,” said Forest Service researcher Jesse Logan in July 2004 (here), “and the common thing is warming temperatures.”
A 2005 study, led by the University of Arizona, with Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey, “Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought,” [PDF] examined a huge three-million acre die-off of vegetation in 2002-2003 “in response to drought and associated bark beetle infestations” in the Four Corners area (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah). This drought was not quite as dry as the one in that region in the 1950s, but it was much warmer, hence it was a global-warming-type drought. The recent drought had “nearly complete tree mortality across many size and age classes” whereas “most of the patchy mortality in the 1950s was associated with trees [greater than] 100 years old.”
Most of this tree death was caused by bark beetle infestation, and “such outbreaks are tightly tied to drought-induced water stress.” Healthy trees defend themselves by drowning the tiny pine beetles in resin. Without water, weakened, parched trees are easy meals for bugs.
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 if we don’t reverse our emissions path immediately.
But how are we ever going to get the political will to reverse our emissions path and avoid even worse climate-driven catastrophes in the future if the media won’t even explain to the public how human-caused climate change is already changing their lives for the worse today. What’s next for the NYT — a story on the obesity epidemic that doesn’t talk about food?
Don’t worry too much about the beetle, though. As Nature reported:
“The beetle will eat itself out of house and home, and the population will eventually collapse.”
Hmm. “Eat itself out of house and home.” Does the bark beetle sound like any other species we know? Finally, the species formerly known as homo sapiens is no longer alone in its self-destructive quest to destroy its habitat.