Millions of tiny mountain pine beetles are chewing through forests in Alberta and the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, spruce beetles and other insects are attacking the lumber supplies around of the world. These insects were normally kept at bay by winter chill but the rising temperature from the climate crisis are now giving them free reign to feed on wood needed to keep housing shortages at bay.
The beetles have currently felled 730 million cubic meters of pine between 2000 and 2015 in British Columbia which is Canada’s largest exporter of timber to the U.S. housing market. That’s erased more than a decade of lumber supplies and and will reduce the allowable production in the B.C. Interior by a staggering 40%, said David Elstone, owner of Vancouver-based Spar Tree Group. Provincial modeling indicates about 55% of B.C.’s marketable pine trees will be dead by 2020.
Helicopters scour areas of Alberta’s northern timberland looking for signs a pine tree’s green needles have turned a ghastly red. The environmental team then look to see if the pines are oozing a creamy, reddish resin, which confirms that the beetles have bored into the bark and overwhelmed their host. Finally, infected trees are cut down with chainsaws before they are chopped into bits and burned with fuel to destroy any chance the larvae could spread.
“You’ve got to utilize these dramatic, very effective techniques of cut and burn,” said Caroline Whitehouse, a forest health specialist for the province of Alberta, noting Alberta’s efforts have reduced the area that could have been impacted by the mountain pine beetle by 30%. Still, the pests have affected more than 5.4 million acres and the outbreak is unlikely to subside for another five or six years.
“Certainly it’s a difficult thing. When you have an outbreak you have millions and millions and millions upon millions of beetles in the forest.”
Decades ago, the mountain pine beetle was part of the forest’s normal cycle of death and regrowth. The pests would feast on mature trees, providing fuel for forest fires that would then spur new growth. But by 1950, humans became very good at putting out forest fires, leaving a ‘smorgasbord’ of older trees for the insects to attack. As winters warmed, more of the beetles were able to survive and extend their reach into areas that used to be too cold to live.