Before I moved back to Pittsburgh, which is where I grew up, I lived in Colorado for 21 years, mostly in Boulder but also in Denver. In those years, and especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, I did a lot of hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Now I wonder how many of the trees I walked amongst on those rugged high trails are dead. Colorado and mountainous areas stretching north to the Yukon have been experiencing the worse pine beetle infestation in recorded history. The Atlantic recently ran a story about those dying forests with the peculiar title As Politicians Debate Climate Change, Our Forests Wither.
John Mack has a saying: "These trees are dead; they just don't know it." Along a back road to a campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park, the chief of resource stewardship at the park points out seemingly healthy trees covered in ugly, popcorn-shaped masses, a lodgepole pine's natural response to the mountain pine beetle. A healthy tree can forcefully push burrowing beetles out, but many of Colorado's pines are water-stressed and aging. Beetles have mass-attacked them, an onslaught that can overwhelm even healthy trees, Mack says.
North America is witnessing the largest pine-beetle epidemic in recorded history. From Canada's Yukon Territory to New Mexico, pine trees by the hundreds of millions are succumbing to a fungus that the beetles carry. The pine needles of infected trees first turn a violent red, then they fall, and, finally, the dead tree topples over. [See the image below.]
Year by year, communities have watched a scourge advance across mountainsides and through neighborhoods, trees turning from green to red to gray. The beetles now attack 12 pine species, from the high-elevation whitebark pine to the lower-elevation ponderosa and piñon. The blight has devastated 3.3 million acres in Colorado alone since the 1990s.
Beetles kill, die off, and regenerate, all of which is part of a lodgepole pine forest's natural life cycle. But human activity helped set the stage for the current epidemic. Decades of fire suppression have left the West with dense stands of vulnerable, elderly trees. Climate has also played a role. Frigid winters that usually kill the beetles have become, over the past 20 years, the exception rather than the rule. Earlier snowmelt and longer summers have altered the beetles' range and life cycle; they now attack pines at higher altitudes and latitudes, and they reproduce twice a year instead of once. Earlier springs and a series of dry years have also weakened trees, turning them into ideal beetle food.
Among the scientific community, a consensus is growing that changes in climate have propelled the outbreak. Jeff Mitton, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado (Boulder), has been studying the mountain pine beetle for more than 30 years. There's no doubt in his mind that climate change has driven the infestation.
"The question is, why has this gotten so much worse?" Mitton said, with the placid gaze of a man used to thinking about long stretches of evolutionary time. "The beetles are out six weeks to two months earlier because springtime temperatures are warmer." Mitton connected the epidemic to other changes observed in American landscapes, from melting glaciers to shifting agricultural regions to increases in global temperatures.
But the evidence that Mitton and his colleagues are piecing together has yet to persuade many people in the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, let alone the average Coloradoan, that climate change has driven the pine-beetle epidemic.
"There's a lot of discussion" about whether climate change influenced the epidemic, said Cal Wettstein, the Forest Service's incident commander who coordinates the regional response to the epidemic. "Of course, I'm not an expert on it. It's possible that it might be a factor. It's not the driving factor."
OK, let's stop right there. Let me say right off the bat that our changing climate is indeed the principal driver of the destruction of Colorado's forests, as Jeff Mitton will make clear in the video below.
Now that we've cleared up that little brouhaha, the question which immediately springs to mind when I read this sort of thing, and such stories are common, is this—
Who gives a shit what people in the U.S. Forest or National Park Services (or "average" Coloradoans) believe about the causes of this forest pestilence?
The "thinking" revealed in this Atlantic article and so many others like it, such as it is, goes something like this—
Anthropogenic climate change is a political problem. (All problems are political problems.) Thus it matters what "average" Americans believe about it. If only we could persuade those ignorant cretins who don't believe in human-caused global warming that the phenomenon is real, we could move forward on changing our energy system and thus fix the problem, or at least mitigate it. And then everybody will live happily ever after like in the movies.
Now we understand the title of the Atlantic article—As Politicians Debate Climate Change, Our Forests Wither. And of course there is the absurdity that "average" Coloradoans might have a useful opinion about global warming.
I often wonder which group is more delusional: is it the people who deny anthropogenic climate change is happening? Or is it the people who believe we can or will fix the problem? I've still got to go with the former group, but just by a nose. Long-time readers of DOTE will not require this brief review, but here it is anyway—
Fossil fuels enabled the rise of modern industrial civilizations. Alternative energy sources which could replace fossil fuels to such an extent as to allow humanity to "fix" or "mitigate" the global warming problem do not currently exist and very likely will not exist anytime soon at the scales required to keep industrial civilizations running. Therefore, humankind must reverse both population and economic growth to "fix" or significantly "mitigate" the global warming problem. In short, we would have to tear our industrial civilizations down. We would have to begin that extremely painful process right now. For reasons too complicated and numerous to go into here, this reversal of growth is not going to occur, ever, at least not voluntarily. So don't wait for it because it ain't gonna happen.
So why should we give a shit what the average Coloradoan or Forest Service worker thinks about whether or not global warming is the main factor causing this epic pine beetle infestation?
It's a shame about the forests of the Rocky Mountains. I love those forests. And climate change is also a primary driver (along with decades of fire suppression) of the High Park Fire currently raging west of Fort Collins, Colorado. And of course trees killed by pine beetles spur the fire on.
(Reuters) - A cool snap on Wednesday gave fire crews in northern Colorado a chance to take the offensive against a deadly wildfire that has scorched over 100 square miles of rugged mountain terrain north of Denver and ranks as the state's most destructive on record.
The so-called High Park Fire already is blamed for one death and has consumed 189 homes in the 12 days since it was ignited by lightning at the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest, and authorities say they expect property losses to climb when more damage assessments are made.
As of Wednesday, an estimated 1,000 homes remained evacuated on the western outskirts of Fort Collins, a city of more 140,000 people that lies adjacent to the national forest about 55 miles north of Denver...
Fire is a natural phenomenon which promotes renewal in the endless natural cycle of death and rebirth in the Earth's forests. But nothing is entirely natural anymore (in a narrow sense) in this human-made world. That's why some people now refer to the current epoch as the Anthropocene (like the current interglacial epoch called the Holocene and the period of the Ice Ages called the Pleistocene).
But don't worry about this stuff. You know me — I'm a dour, old guy with a Really Bad Attitude. No doubt that's why my visitor traffic on DOTE is currently falling through the floor. We really need to look at this situation with a glass half-full attitude. Consider the Huffington Post's Colo.'s Beetle-Killed Pine Trees Are Finding A Second Life In Energy, Construction. This story was published in September, 2011.
Whether used for heat, electricity, or construction the trees in the nearly 3 million acres of Colorado forest that have been rocked by the mountain pine bark beetle are proving to be a valuable resource.
Newsweek estimates that the beetle will leave Colorado with a deforested area about the size of Rhode Island — that's a lot of surplus wood that might otherwise just go to waste.
And some home builders are starting to take advantage of it. 7News reports that a Denver home building company, New Town Builders, is using those beetle-killed trees in the new homes they are constructing.
Using the dead trees could help reduce fire danger in areas with a glut of dead trees, help new growth once the trees are removed and give a boost to the ailing Colo. lumber industry, New Town Builders says.
Colorado's sawmills lose money extracting the beetle-killed trees because of antiquated contracts with the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture, Huffington Post reported.
Fox31 reports that Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) has been working on solutions for industries that are affected by the beetle killed trees like sawmills and home builders for more than a decade. And he hopes that other home builders like New Town will get involved.
The wood could also be useful in providing a new source of heat. In Aspen, the Roaring Fork Biomass Consortium has been studying the potential to use the dead trees and other biomass for energy in the local area, according to The Associated Press. There may be as much as 6,000 tons of dry wood that could be burned in low oxygen to produce methane, which can be burned for heat in the local Aspen area.
So, now do you see what I mean? This pine beetle scourge and the wildfires and the rest of this stuff—it's all for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Here's the Mitton video.