Blog Archive

Sunday, April 14, 2013

David Suzuki: The Pine Beetles Are Coming

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What fear mongering drivel. Suzuki really MUST retire.

Good luck mr. Pine Beetle, safe journey. Lets see you survive the Saskatchewan and Manitoba winters. Don't forget to bring a sweater, you'll need it. Lol!