Citizen Action Monitor

Climate change unleashes trillions of killer pine beetles threatening to decimate Canada’s pine forests

redflag 2The first ‘tsunami’ attack was in BC forests; now Alberta’s pines are under attack

“What we’re seeing is a harbinger of things to come”

No 1133 Posted by fw, August 30, 2014

“Despite repeated attempts to stop the pine beetle, the only real effective way to control its population and expansion is cold. Yet, winters continue to get warmer….The beetles’ unstoppable advance is now poised to attack the jack pine, a close relative to the lodgepole pine, found in the boreal forest, the massive northern eco-region that stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland. More ominously, the Alberta Forest Genetic Resources Council believes that Canada’s boreal forest which has evolved for thousands of years, will be vastly different in the short time period of one century – or less.”The Beetles are Coming, a documentary film

This post has 3 sections: 1) an embedded, fascinating, sobering 43-minute video, The Beetles Are Coming ~ Pine Beetle Destroys BC Forest, narrated by David Suzuki and recently featured on his CBC show, The Nature of Things; 2) text that accompanies the video; 3) my transcript of the concluding 8 minutes of the film. As well, check out the SEE ALSO link to a provocative article — Should Chevron pay for the Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic?

1/ The Video — The beetles are coming: Pine beetle destroys BC forest

 

2/ Text accompanying the video published on Apr 6, 2013

Summer 2006: Peter Jackson, a meteorologist in Prince George B.C., couldn’t believe what he was seeing on his radar screen. It was like a rainstorm, but thicker, and it was crossing east over the Rocky Mountains. It looked a little like insect swarms, except insects had never been seen at such high altitudes before. Farmers on the eastern slope of the Rockies described huge clouds of insects. They could hear them pinging off their steel roofs. The swarms were so dense they gummed up the windshield wipers on the farmers’ vehicles.

This was this first attack of the mountain pine beetle east of the Rocky Mountains… the year when the unthinkable actually happened: carried along by the prevailing winds, trillions of mountain pine beetles crossed the Rocky Mountains from BC into Alberta. Now, the great Northern Boreal Forest, one of the world’s richest ecosystems and one of its greatest carbon sinks, was face to face with a grave threat – a plague of insects, each the size of a grain of rice.

In British Columbia, the damage done by this hungry little creature was already well known. In the interior of B.C. people called it ‘The Lodgepole Tsunami.’ In a period of less than 10 years, swarms of mountain pine beetles ate their way through 18 million hectares of lodgepole pine forest, an area the size of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick combined. The ecological and economic cost has been staggering.

But the mountain pine beetle is NOT an invasive species. It has lived with and co-evolved with the lodgepole pine for millennia. Like natural forest fires, the pine beetle is a critical actor in the natural cycle of forest regeneration. Every 25 years or so, in a period of warm winters and warm, dry summers, the beetle’s population would spike. Then they would attack, taking out over-mature trees, thus thinning the canopy to make way for younger tree growth. These outbreaks would last a year or two, then the normal weather patterns would prevail and an early cold snap or a stretch of cold winter weather would bring the population back under control.

But, in this outbreak, the beetle population in BC grew massively for a decade, and devastated the province’s forests. So what was it that unleashed this terrible force of nature? The culprit is climate change. In its natural range, there is no longer the cold weather brake that has kept the Beetle’s population under control. Now that the population has exploded, there’s no telling where it will stop. For the first time, the eastward march across Canada of this seemingly unstoppable beetle invasion is now perceived as inevitable, especially since the beetle has no natural enemies, nor has man found any way to kill it.

The pine dominant Northern Boreal Forest, stretching all the way to the Atlantic, is now under threat, with ominous ramifications for our travel and tourism, as well as our forestry industries. Without our pine forests, long a symbol of the Canadian landscape and identity, the result will be a Canada we no longer recognize.

The Beetles are Coming takes the viewer on a rich, up close and personal journey into the world of the mountain pine beetle, and uncovers the science behind this ecological disaster. The story of this remarkable little creature the size of a grain of rice that will destroy the pine forests of North America epitomizes the cause and effect of how climate change can upset the balance of nature with unpredictable, unimaginable, devastating results.

Forest officials scrambled to contain the damage. Once the lodgepole pines turned red they burned with a ferocious intensity. That combined with hot summers, created the ideal conditions for raging out-of-control forest fires. Industry began logging the infected trees in attempt to clear the forest and capitalize on the economic value of the timber. At considerable expense, forestry officials in B.C. and Alberta began marking and burning infested trees to control the spread but found it impossible to keep up.

Despite repeated attempts to stop the pine beetle, the only real effective way to control its population and expansion is cold. Yet, winters continue to get warmer. According to research from Oregon State University, the lodgepole pine could almost disappear from the Pacific Northwest by 2080. The beetles’ unstoppable advance is now poised to attack the jack pine, a close relative to the lodgepole pine, found in the boreal forest, the massive northern eco-region that stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland.

More ominously, the Alberta Forest Genetic Resources Council believes that Canada’s boreal forest which has evolved for thousands of years, will be vastly different in the short time period of one century – or less.

3/ Transcript of the concluding 8 minutes of the film

David Suzuki — In the Boreal, pine trees are a keystone species. They play a crucial role in this ecosystem. Losing them would be disastrous. The province of Alberta is now fighting a desperate battle to stop the beetle in its tracks. But this is easier said than done.

Dr. Allan Carroll, Insect Ecologist, University of British Columbia — Managing the mountain pine beetle is incredibly difficult. And this is because the indications of their impacts — dead trees — are telling us where the beetle was, not where the beetle is. When a beetle attacks a tree, in the mid-summer, that tree won’t start to show symptoms of the attack until May or June of the subsequent year. And then we’re forced to put people on the ground to circle these red trees to try and find where the beetles have gone in the interim.

SuzukiCrews only have three months, from early May until late July to identify, cut and burn every infected tree. By late July or early August it will be too late. The beetles will have flown from last year’s dead trees to attack new ones. The government of Alberta will have to do this every year for the foreseeable future, regardless of terrain. And to be clear, we’re talking about millions of trees.

Carroll — At best, the best trained crew can only find perhaps maybe 80% of all of those newly attacked trees based upon this sort of activity. And this means that when populations [of beetles] are increasing at 4 to 1 on an annual basis, 80% detection and subsequent destruction of those trees is just barely effective in terms of limiting that population’s increase.

Suzuki – With a massive effort under way, the government of Alberta is not quite breaking even in this battle. And conditions haven’t been great for the beetles in the last few years. They’ve had cool, wet summers and cold winters, conditions that keep the beetle populations fairly low. If Alberta has a spell of mild winters and hot dry summers like BC had at the peak of the outbreak, the population will explode, and all this money and effort will have been wasted.

Carroll –There are definitely points at which you have to admit defeat, when the population gets bigger than you can influence. So it’s quite correct in stating that once the population gets to an epidemic there’s nothing you can do to influence it.

SuzukiThe beetles are no firmly established in Alberta, the scientists are convinced there’s nothing to be done.

Carroll – A lot of times people ask about the issue of biological control. Can’t we do something, can’t we release some natural enemy that is going to suppress the population, solve the issue? And unfortunately the answer to that has been no. Because the beetle exists beneath the bark, any control agent has to be applied to each individual tree, which is completely impossible because we have literally billions of trees involved. So biological control, as nice as it sounds, is not an effective way of controlling the population that reaches an epidemic.

Suzuki – None of this bodes well for the forests of eastern Canada.

Carroll – There are species such as eastern white pine and red pine, in addition to the jack pine that we are quite convinced are going to be suitable hosts for the mountain pine beetle. So if it were to get across the Prairies and start moving down towards Ontario there could be very significant impacts in terms of the pine forests there.

Suzuki – There is a stark example of what the future might look like for our pine forests just south of the border in Montana.

Dr. Diana Six, Forest Entomologist, University of Montana — So what you’re seeing here is really, really different than what we’ve seen in a lot of the lodgepole pine. This stand is whitebark pine so it a very high elevation pine and typically mountain pine beetle hasn’t been able to get up here in the past. But now it’s a lot warmer and so they can go through a life cycle, they can survive the winters. So we see a whole lot of mortality up here. But what really makes it different is that the extent of the mortality is really extreme. So we see a full-blown outbreak and these beetles are now moving through these stands in something like maybe three years. And that’s almost unheard of for a mountain pine beetle outbreak.

With whitebark pine we don’t expect the tree to come back. This is pretty much a permanent destruction of this tree species. Most of us that work on the beetles are thinking that this is what we call a functional extinction, and that is, you know, not a complete extinction – there’ll be a few here and there – but really no longer playing an important ecological role.

Suzuki – It seems that pine trees in the areas with no history of mountain pine beetle attack have much weaker defences than pines like the lodgepole, which have evolved alongside the beetle.

Andrew Nikiforuk, Author, Empire of the Beetle — And what really surprised scientists was to discover — Oh, those trees in the north and, or at higher altitudes had no resistance. They had no experiences with bark beetles and they were just mowed down. It took fewer beetles to bring these trees down and kill them.

Suzuki – All species of pine trees are hardy and have survived in many environments. But now the pace of climate change is so rapid scientists fear pines won’t have the time to adapt to this new threat. But for the beetle its progress will be determined by climate, the one factor that has always regulated its range and population.

CarrollInsects are expected to be one of the first indicators of climate change in terrestrial ecosystems because they’re cold blooded. And everything they do, everything, is dependent upon temperature. The mountain pine beetle’s only one of many different species capable of causing this sort of landscape level event. And so what we’re really concerned about is what we’re seeing is a harbinger of things to come.

NikiforukGovernments and industry are stuck in 19th century thinking – that we’re the managers of this damn place. This conifer system, you know, gives us oxygen, this conifer system sequesters carbon for us, this conifer system, which is 300 million years old, made the earth habitable for us.

When you forget things like that, and you presume that you know it all, Mother Nature will always take you down a peg.

SEE ALSO

  • Should Chevron pay for the Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic? by Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer, West Coast Environmental Law, May 22, 2014 – “According to the BC Government, the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic – a direct result of climate change – cost British Columbia billions in lost timber value alone – not counting environmental and other damages. This reality has influenced the public consciousness of British Columbians about the cost of climate change, and it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that public awareness of climate change’s impacts in BC was influenced by the pine beetle epidemic, and therefore that the pine beetle played an important role in BC adopting its carbon tax in 2008…. It may even prompt discussion about whether the taxpayer – or the polluter – should be the one paying for those costs.”

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