Across British Columbia, 36 million acres of pine forests are dead and dying. The killer is a small beetle the size of a rice kernel.
Indigenous to the forests of North America, the mountain pine beetle’s population was kept in check by cold winters. But global warming in the last two decades has allowed the beetles to thrive.
The path of destruction caused by this infestation can be seen in a cataclysmic shift in the color and shape of the landscape.
To the untrained eye, the attack appears beautiful at first. Swaths of green trees turn red, like autumn leaves changing. But these pines are evergreens and a color shift is a sign of inevitable mortality. From red, the leaves turn purple, brown, and finally grey. At this point, they can no longer stand and whither to the ground, their pinecones dried out and scattered across the forest floor, their branches, ready fuel for fires.
By 2014, an estimated 80 percent of the lodge pole pines in BC will be dead. The attack has also affected the giant Ponderosas, some of them three to four hundred years old.
Once carbon sinks, these forests are now emitters. By 2020, the dead trees will add an extra billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere or 5 times what all Canadian transportation emits a year.
Nothing can stop the large-scale attacks. Chemical patches can be placed on individual trees to trick beetles into thinking the trees are full, but this is not a solution for tens of millions of acres.
The beetle invades by drilling perfectly symmetrical holes in the bark of trees to lay their larvae. The tree emits gooey yellow sap to plug up the holes and protect itself, but to no avail. In the late spring and summer the beetles emerge and fly to attack new trees. Having eaten nearly all the mature lodge pole pines in British Columbia, they are chomping through younger ones. Canadian officials say the beetle has nearly eaten itself out of house and home in British Columbia and so has crossed the provincial line to scout new prey in Alberta where there have been reports of what look like hail clouds but are actually swarms of flying beetles.
The consequences of this unprecedented infestation are enormous and just beginning to unfold. Dead trees crash down on power lines, block watersheds, and fuel fires. In 2009, British Columbia recorded more fires over more acres than any year in its history. Dead and dying tress provide no shade so the ground gets warmer. Dead trees with no leaves can’t hold snowpack required for proper run off.
This story is part of Climate Change by NOOR.