The oldest Utah newspaper understands “climate change is now being blamed for an increased population of bark beetles.” The journal Nature published an article just this April, “Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change.” The Canadian media knows, “Climate-Driven Pest Devours Canada’s Forests.”
Yet NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams manages to do an entire story devoted to the explosion of the tiny forest-destroying pest in Colorado without ever mentioning the crucial climate change connection:
If people wonder why the American public doesn’t understand 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 — one need look no further than the traditional media.
NBC offers no explanation for what has happened beyond the statement that “The beetles, about the size of a grain of rice, have always been here, but their population has exploded as they feed off the old drought-weakened trees.” But haven’t we always had droughts? What is different now, NBC?
You know your network is failing its viewers when it won’t even offer an explanation that is so widely understood that even conservative senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) presented it in a May 2006 speech on climate change:
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.
Global warming has created a perfect climate for these beetles — Milder winters since 1994 have reduced the winter death rate of beetle larvae [PDF] in Wyoming from 80 percent per year to under 10 percent, and hotter, drier summers have made trees weaker, less able to fight off beetles. [Picture shows forests turned red by beetle.]
“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, “and the common thing is warming temperatures.”
A 2005 study [PDF] 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,” 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 NBC, 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 sapiens is no longer alone in its self-destructive quest to destroy its habitat.
“He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”
This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.