The Weekly Carboholic: Study to determine if pine beetle affects Rocky Mountain climate

Posted on October 15, 2008



Mountain pine beetle infestations have been killing evergreen forests since before I was born. I have memories of my father pointing out the dead and dying trees to me, saying that those beetles would kill the entire forest if they got the chance, how the warmer winters meant that more eggs and larva survived to eat and kill more trees the next year, that we needed bitterly cold winters to keep the beetles in check. Unfortunately, there have been too many warm winters in a row, and pine beetle has spread to the point that entire swaths of forest are dead or dying, not just isolated trees or stands of trees. We’re at the point that the Colorado town of Frisco held its first annual BeetleFest, with expectations of an unfortunately long run of festivals in the future. Now a new release from the National Science Foundation suggests that the dying forests will change more than just the trees themselves.

According to the article, scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) believe that the pine beetle may be responsible for changes in Rocky Mountain climate and air quality. This summer saw the start of a four-year study into how much the pine beetle-killed forests are changing cloud formation, aerosols (particles such as soot), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air. The region under study extends from southern Wyoming down to New Mexico.

Scientists expect that they’ll find increased amounts of VOCs in the air, higher amounts of aerosols, and reduced water vapor and cloud formation, and thus lower precipitation near beetle infested forests as compared to healthy forests. The scientists quoted in the release believe that trees under attack release VOCs and aerosols in the process of trying to fight off the beetle and the fungus that follows (and is ultimately responsible for killing the trees) In addition, respiration in a healthy forest releases groundwater from the tree’s roots into the air, aiding in cloud formation and raising humidity. An infested forest would have fewer live trees to perform this ecological function, and so weather patterns would be affected in the process.

It’s fact that warm winters have enabled the spread of the mountain pine beetle throughout the Rocky Mountains. Whether the pine beetle could become a disruption mechanism in the climate throughout the mountain region remains to be seen.


New study says forest destruction costs trillions annually
A new EU study headed by Deutsche Bank economist Pavan Sukhdev has concluded that destruction of forest internationally is causing economic damage to the tune of $2 – $5 trillion, or up to 7% of the global economy, annually. That’s roughly three to seven times the amount of the U.S. financial bailout every year. This calculation was done by placing value on the various “services” that healthy, existent forests provide for free, such as carbon sequestration, water treatment, food, and water storage. Further, Sukhdev concluded that the costs were essentially regressive, since the poor rely more on natural forests for their livelihoods globally than do the wealthy.

According to the BBC article, environmental groups are hoping that The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) study will bring the value of natural systems to the forefront of people’s minds in much the same way that the Stern Review did two years ago. And while it’s unfortunate that the intrinsic value of natural spaces has not been internalized by enough people worldwide, an economic argument for the value of those same natural spaces may have a better chance of grabbing the attention of economy-obsessed businessmen and politicians.


Global heating will affect tropical species too
Many scientists and laypeople have assumed that the tropics would be relatively immune to the effects of global heating. After all, the tropics are hot already, and presumably the plant and animal species residing in the tropics have an inherent resistance to warmer temperatures. A new study by University of Connecticut professor and ecologist Robert Colwell and reported in the UConn Advance indicates that this may not, in fact, be as true as people had been assuming.

According to the Advance story, much of the tropics is roughly the same temperatures, so it’s only on the fringes – where the tropics meet temperate zones – that plants and animals have the opportunity to move to cooler latitudes (away from the equator). Everywhere else in the tropics species must change their elevation by climbing mountains, hillsides, etc. Colwell has found that this may not be possible for all species for several reasons.

The first is that the species on the top has no-where to go, so they must simultaneously compete with invaders from lower down in altitude and adapt to hotter temperatures, something that not all species will be able to do. The second is that human’s have clear cut many mountains and hillsides for forestry products or agriculture, preventing the movement of many species up in altitude.

In addition, as the lowlands heat up, and as species attempt to move up in elevation, they effectively abandon ecological niches in the lowlands, reducing biodiversity throughout the tropics in the process. This is especially true of species that cannot migrate to higher altitudes for various reasons and that cannot adapt to higher temperatures.

The conclusion of Colwell’s 15 years of research, as reported by the Advance, is this: the tropics aren’t immune to the effects of global heating any more than the world’s temperate zones or arctic regions are.


Adapting supply chain management to high fuel prices
The Financial Times (FT) of London had a story last week about how companies will have to adapt their supply chains and inventory management methods to adapt to high oil prices. Fundamentally it’s a problem of economics – just-in-time and lean manufacturing techniques rely on cheap fuel to make transportation cheaper than inventory storage. Similarly, manufacturing off-shore becomes less economically viable when shipping goods from those countries is more expensive. And nearly all existing supply chain management schemes were designed before accounting for the costs of carbon emissions became important due to present or anticipated carbon limits or taxes.

According to the article, there are a number of ways that costs and carbon emissions can be reduced. Shifting from fast air and truck transportation to slow rail and ship helps, as does sharing delivery vehicles and even warehousing facilities when possible. However, the FT article points out that these changes take a great deal of planning and organizing, especially when different companies use different supply chain management systems. However, if companies can get past such cultural differences to work together, the cost savings, and energy and carbon savings, are significant. After all, every truck you can run full of food or other products both to and from a warehouse nearly doubles efficiency.


Wind jobs helping employment in depressed areas
The upper Midwest and parts of the Midwest and South have serious problems with employment. These areas are some of the worst off in the nation, especially those areas that have come to rely on the Big 3 automakers. But according to a recent post in the NYTimes Green, Inc. blog, there’s a good chance that new wind turbine construction jobs will create new jobs throughout “the wind belt”.

According to the post, four new plants have opened recently. Nine plants were announced last year, and all the manufacturing plants currently in the U.S. are expected to manufacture 50% of all wind components in the U.S. by the end of the year, up from 30% in 2005. The advantages of this are pretty clear. When it comes to turbine blades, for example, they’re so large that they’re expensive to transport, so it’s cheaper to manufacture them close to where they’ll ultimately be used. And the post also suggests that wind turbine companies are starting to build plants in the U.S. because the dollar has fallen enough against other currencies that it’s cheaper to manufacture in the U.S. than it is offshore (when transportation is factored in). However, green wind jobs can’t do it alone. The post points out that GM alone has cut 19,000 jobs since early 2007, while all the new wind manufacturing jobs have created only a quarter of that.

Image credits:
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mountain Pine Beetle Forest Insect and Disease Leaflet 2
Wikimedia Commons
AP, via Green, Inc at NYTimes

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