North America: Forests and a beetle go to war


Millions of acres of pine forest in North America has been turned to a wasteland by a pine beetle according to Reuters. The plague of pine beetles has cost billions of dollars in lost timber and land values may thwart efforts to combat climate change.

"The gravity of the situation is very real," said Rolf Skar, a Greenpeace forest campaigner.

The beetle outbreak could make it tougher for the U.S. to meet its ambitious carbon emission reduction targets, which require an 83 per cent reduction on 2005 levels by 2050.

Blaming beetles for an entire nation's emissions may seem a little unfair, but the infestation may ultimately be caused by climate change. The lack of winters cold enough to kill the beetles could be the primary cause of the outbreak.

"Pine beetle infestations are cyclical in nature and have been occurring for thousands of years but what is making things worse now is the effects of global warming," said Skar.

"If you don't have the real cold extremes to kill off the larvae under the bark you are going to have extreme infestation events," he said.

In the Medicine Bow National Forest, which under the green canopy is dying a slow death, scientists are able to study the carbon implications of the die-off. Researchers have shown that the carbon storage ability of the forest is only half of what it was three or four years ago and in another three of four years it may well be a net source of carbon.

Sadly, this scenario is being played out across the Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota, which have lost 2.5 million acres, 677,000 acres and 354,000 respectively to the outbreak.

Over the same period of time, the spruce beetle, which has also ravaged forests as far north as Alaska, took out 374,000 acres in Colorado and 340,000 in Wyoming.

This cumulative total of 6 million acres (2.5 million hectares) is an area bigger than Israel.

Forests can recover over time, but a severe cold spell is desperately needed to halt the beetle in its tracks.