Climate change disrupts ecosystems that provide valuable services
If you are one of those people who loves the quiet communion of hiking in the high-country forests of Colorado, you’d better get there fast. In three years, those forests may be gone.
The Rocky Mountain News reported this week that every large, mature forest of lodgepole pines in Colorado and southern Wyoming will be dead in three to five years. Some 1.5 million acres of pine forest already have been destroyed since 1996. State and federal foresters call the loss “catastrophic.”
What’s causing the massive die-off? The root cause appears to be global climate change. Winters are warmer. That allows pine bark beetles to survive. The lodgepoles are less able to defend themselves because they have been stressed by years of drought. As a result, a rice-sized bug is felling vast expanses of forests in Colorado. Similar die-offs are underway elsewhere in the western United States and in Canada.
(Forest management practices — mainly fire suppression in past years — also are to blame. Dense vegetation allows the beetles to spread more quickly and older trees are more susceptible to the bug.)
Lodgepoles as old as 300 years have been found in Colorado’s high country, where the slender trees, as tall as 80 feet, used to thrive. Today, visitors to parts of the Rocky Mountains see vast expanses of dead brown poles. Soon, they’ll see just the mountainsides. The trees will be gone.
The lodgepoles are a visual example of losses often not counted when we tally the costs of fossil fuels and global warming. Like other parts of our ecosystems, lodgepole pines perform a wide variety of “ecosystem services,” many of which have economic value. Among those services are wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, tourism, flood and erosion control, water filtration, and carbon sequestration.
One of the impacts in Colorado, forestry experts told the Rocky Mountain News, will be the state’s water supplies — a valuable asset everywhere, but especially in the West. As the trees disappear, erosion will increase, choking rivers and reservoirs with sediment.
And as trees die or are burned, they release the carbon they stored when alive. Forest fires already release nearly 300 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year in the United States. One bad fire season can release as much CO2 as the energy sector in a given state, researchers have found.
Robert Costanza, founder of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, has estimated the value of ecosystem services at $33 trillion worldwide (PDF) — more than the combined yearly GNPs of all the world’s economies.
Those services must be part of our analysis when we count the value of climate action — and the high costs of inaction. We tend to take our ecosystems for granted, as though they’ve always been here and always will. As will be the case with the dying high-country forests in Colorado, we don’t fully appreciate them until they’re gone.