The signs of global warming are everywhere. Coming back from my Vail conference to Denver, the driver pointed out to me the shocking devastation the state is now experiencing from the pine beetle, devastation anyone who lives in the West can see.


The so-called paper of record ran its second major story in less than a year on the country’s most infamous climate-driven pest, “Beetles Add New Dynamic to Forest Fire Control Efforts” by Kirk Johnson. And like the early piece, “Bark Beetles Kill Millions of Acres of Trees in West,” by Jim Robbins, it’s a 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.”

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Of course, the journal Nature understands the science, as an April 2008 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.”

No wonder the public is not terribly concerned about global warming and fails to understand that humans are changing the climate now. The only surprising thing is that the NYT itself is surprised that the public is underinformed (see “NYT‘s Revkin seems shocked by media’s own failure to explain climate threat“).

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This new piece made the crucial connection between the beetles and the record-breaking forest fires that the West have been experiencing – but missed the equally crucial connection to global warming. On the one hand, that also isn’t surprising since three years ago, the NY Times blew the Wildfire Story. On the other hand, had reporter Kirk Johnson bothered to spend even one minute on Google he would have uncovered the tragic feedback that would have made his story complete – global warming leads to more bark beetles, which kills more trees, which leads to more fires, which emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, which leads to more global warming!

The NYT did get the grim, superficial facts of the story right:

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But tiny bark beetles, munching and killing pine trees by the millions from Colorado to Canada, are now increasingly adding their own new dynamic. As the height of summer fire season approaches, more than seven million acres of forest in the United States have been declared all but dead, throwing a swath of land bigger than Massachusetts into a kind of fire-cycle purgatory that forestry officials admit they do not yet have a good handle on for fire prediction or assessment.

Dead trees, depending on how recently they died, may be much more flammable than living trees, or slightly more flammable, or even for a certain period less flammable. The only certainties are that dead forests are growing in size and scale – 22 million more acres are expected to die over the next 15 years – and that foresters, like the fire-tower lookouts of old, are keeping their eyes peeled and their fingers crossed.

“There’s just a lot more fuel in those dead forests available to burn,” said Bob Harrington, the Montana state forester, who is focusing additional resources this summer on a three-million-acre zone of beetle-infested forest from Butte to Helena.

More than 100,000 people live in that area, and Mr. Harrington said that although fire forecasts for Montana, as in most of the West, called for only an average fire season, dead forests do not play by the rules. They can dry out much faster in heat, without living tree tissue to hold water.

Other beetle watchers say the nightmare of a severe fire season concentrated in the dead-forest zone running along the spine of the Rocky Mountains has, so far, been averted. In Colorado, a combination of deep snows last winter followed by a wet spring has kept fire danger low. But scientists say that recent winters have also lacked the stretches of deep cold – 20 to 40 degrees below zero – that can check the insects’ spread.

Gosh, if only scientists had some explanation for why recent winters haven’t been so cold – or, rather, if only journalists would talk to the hundreds of scientists screaming at the top of their lungs to be heard on the subject.

[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% per year to under 10%, 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,” 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 sapiens is no longer alone in its self-destructive quest to destroy its habitat.

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

Final media note: In January, the NYT launched an “Environmental S.W.A.T. Team,” as Columbia Journalism Review called it, “in a bid for richer, more prominent coverage.” Because of this lame story, Commenter Anna Haynes sent a note to S.W.A.T. team editor Erica Goode:

Hello Ms Goode –

I’m curious about the NYT Environmental S.W.A.T. team makeup at this point, since the NYT seems to be running environment/climate stories without the participation of said team, as I understand it to be constituted (from the January CJR Observatory post).

Could you tell me please –
Is the team still active?
Has its membership changed since the January CJR post announcing it?
(Is John M. Broder on it? Kirk Johnson?)
Are you still its editor?
Do environmental stories by non-team members still get edited by the team’s editor?

Thank you for your time, and for helping us readers to understand.

The answer came back:

Thanks for your interest in our environmental cluster!
In answer to your questions: Yes, I’m still the editor, and I have a deputy editor now, Nancy Kenney.
Yes, John Broder is part of our group. Kirk Johnson is not – he works for the National desk. The other members of the enviro group – or pod, as we often call it – are Andy Revkin, Elisabeth Rosenthal, Leslie Kaufman, Matt Wald, Felicity Barringer, Cornelia Dean and Mia Navarro. Reporters from other sections – most recently, Jim Glanz from Investigations – sometimes do pieces for us. And we often collaborate with reporters from the energy cluster in the Business section.
We edit all of our own stories, then feed them to other sections – National, Foreign, Metro, Science, etc.
Hope this answers your questions and thanks for asking.

And that’s why the NYT didn’t SWAT this beetle.