'Rapid Warming' Spreads Havoc in Canada's Forests

Red trees mark the advance of the mountain pine beetle.
Red trees mark the advance of the mountain pine beetle. (Leo Rankin -- British Columbia Forest Service)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

QUESNEL, B.C. -- Millions of acres of Canada's lush green forests are turning red in spasms of death. A voracious beetle, whose population has exploded with the warming climate, is killing more trees than wildfires or logging.

The mountain pine beetle has infested an area three times the size of Maryland, devastating swaths of lodgepole pines and reshaping the future of the forest and the communities in it.

"It's pretty gut-wrenching," said Allan Carroll, a research scientist at the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria, whose studies tracked a lock step between warmer winters and the spread of the beetle. "People say climate change is something for our kids to worry about. No. It's now."

Scientists fear the beetle will cross the Rocky Mountains and sweep across the northern continent into areas where it used to be killed by severe cold but where winters now are comparatively mild. Officials in neighboring Alberta are setting fires and traps and felling thousands of trees in an attempt to keep the beetle at bay.

"This is an all-out battle," said David Coutts, Alberta's minister of sustainable resource development. The Canadian Forest Service calls it the largest known insect infestation in North American history.

U.S. Forest Service officials say they are watching warily as the outbreak has spread. The United States is less vulnerable because it lacks the seamless forest of lodgepole pines that are a highway for the beetle in Canada. So far, U.S. officials say, the outbreaks have been mostly in isolated clumps of remote wilderness areas of northern Washington.

"It's a rapid warming" that is increasing the beetles' range, said Carroll. "All the data show there are significant changes over widespread areas that are going to cause us considerable amount of grief. Not only is it coming, it's here."

"We are seeing this pine beetle do things that have never been recorded before," said Michael Pelchat, a forestry officer in Quesnel, as he followed moose tracks in the snow to examine a 100-year-old pine killed in one season by the beetle. "They are attacking younger trees, and attacking timber in altitudes they have never been before."

The tiny beetle has always lived in high areas from Arizona to northern British Columbia, and occasionally populations have grown in limited outbreaks. In Canada, where the beetle's favored lodgepole pine thrives, it has been controlled by winters with early cold snaps or long killing spells of 20 degrees below zero. But for more than a decade, forestry experts say, the weather here has not been cold enough for long enough to kill the beetle.

Scientists with the Canadian Forest Service say the average temperature of winters here has risen by more than 4 degrees in the last century. "That's not insignificant," said Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia's chief forester. "Global warming is happening. We have to start to account for it."

The result is a swarm of beetles that has grown exponentially in the past six years, flying from tree to tree. The advance is marked by broad swaths of rust-red forest, the color pines turn before they drop all their needles to become ghostly grey skeletons.

"It's depressing to see," said Steve Dodge, a British Columbia forestry official whose office is along the Quesnel River. This town of 10,000 sits in the heart of the province's vast evergreen woodlands. Steam billowing from the kilns of a half-dozen sawmills and pulp plants enshroud the town, which proudly calls itself the "Woodsmart City" in homage to the timber industry that sustains it.

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