Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Pine Beetle Update


As a resident of the Mountain West, I’ve seen first-hand the effects of mountain pine beetles (Dendroctonus ponderosae) in forests.* Areas of formerly dark green pine trees turned rust red. Those areas have gotten larger quickly over the past few years due to lack of sustained cold temperatures during our winters. Identifying human-influenced climate change as the cause is not a stretch, it’s widely accepted by scientists.

There is now mounting evidence that the hundreds of thousands of acres of dead trees in Colorado, and many more beyond the state’s borders, will cause those forests to change from carbon sinks to carbon sources. A little background: healthy forests act as giant reservoirs (sinks) of carbon dioxide. The trees absorb CO2 during their respiration and production of chlorophyll. The difference now is as these trees die by the millions, all that stored carbon will be released back into the atmosphere. An atmosphere that, as mentioned above, humans have been busy injecting CO2 and other greenhouse gases during the trees’ life spans.

Overall, that situation doesn’t sound very good. It gets a little bit scarier when one realizes that computer climate models haven’t been programmed to take this process into account yet. Activists have been proposing for some time now that high latitude forests could be protected and expanded to help trap some of the atmospheric CO2. It now appears that those forests are falling to the effects of already induced climate change. And let’s be honest: the climate changes we’ve seen so far haven’t been catastrophic. Scientists are noting smaller-scale changes around the world: large ice shelf collapses, record Arctic ice melt, etc. Those forests cannot be counted on as people had hoped in the future, at least not until we control our GHG emissions and decrease the GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.

I began covering this problem with an eye toward some solutions. Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO02) introduced a couple of bills dealing with the mountain pine beetle kill back in January:

H.R. 5216 would amend the newly-enacted energy legislation to allow more trees to be removed from National Forests to qualify for incentives to use “renewable biomass” to generate energy.

H.R. 5218 focuses on additional steps to help Colorado communities act to reduct potential damage from wildfires. This includes setting up responsible personnel and procedures, grants for responsible development and grants for establishing fire-hazard assessment maps.

Clicking on the bill numbers above informs us that no progress has been made on this legislation, both of which were introduced three months ago now. It is time for these bills to be heard in committee so that they can hopefully be passed, signed and take effect. The longer the trees are left to rot in the forests, the more carbon is lost back to the atmosphere, further increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases. Another thing to contemplate is whether this scenario might trip another feedback cycle. Every time this happens, our efforts to reduce GHG concentrations become harder and more expensive to implement. I’m going to get in touch with Rep. Udall’s staff and ask when we can expect this legislation to come up.

I also wanted to point out the growing body of material written on this important subject. First, a DailyKos mountain pine beetle diary, which cites a Washington Post mountain pine beetle article and a Miami Herald mountain pine beetle article. I also found a Reuter’s article on mountain pine beetles and a Summit Daily article on the mountain pine beetle. An excellent analysis, more technical than this one can be found in a ClimateProgress mountain pine beetle diary. There are plenty of good links there, as well. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, only recent discussions that I’ve seen. Until the problem is aggressively dealt with, I hope more material continues to be produced.

*I’ve written a little about the issue before: Pine beetle post 1, pine beetle post 2, and pine beetle post 3.


3 thoughts on “Pine Beetle Update

  1. Pingback: Global Warming Denyers Falsify Scientists’ Work « Weatherdem’s Weblog

  2. Pingback: Udall Responds to Pine Beetle Legislation Question « Weatherdem’s Weblog

  3. Pingback: News Items 9/11/08: Natural Gas Prices, Hiding on the Ballot, Renewable Energy Transmission, Pine Beetle Ation? « Weatherdem’s Weblog

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