Climate Change Isn’t Just Bringing Bad Weather–It’s Bringing The Beetles

Rising sea levels and unpredictable weather are not the only consequences of climate change.

Another consequence most don’t consider is the effect rising temperatures have on invasive species.

According to the study, “Threats to North American forests from southern pine beetle with warming winters,” published in the journal Nature Climate Changethere are definite links between climate change and the spread of southern pine beetles, increasing the threat to ecosystems.

Southern pine beetles are among the most destructive insects present in North America’s pine forests. As global temperatures climb, the beetles migrate farther north, infest, and prey on trees, creating fuel for wildfires.

The study indicates by 2020 the beetles’ range could stretch to Nova Scotia, Canada, and cover more than 270,000 square miles from the upper Midwest to Maine, on into Canada’s further reaches by 2080.

Normal cold weather kills the beetles in their larval stage; however, as winters warm at the northern edge of the beetles’ present range, they rapidly hatch, multiply and seek new territory.

Study co-author and Columbia University climate scientist Radley Horton says the study demonstrates how even slight shifts in average temperatures can lead to significant changes.

Horton said:

“One of our messages is to look at these outcomes and embrace the uncertainty. You can’t only plan for what you see as the most likely outcome.”  

According to the study, even if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the level agreed upon in the Paris Climate Agreement, heat-trapping pollution will still increase temperatures enough to further drive the beetles’ spread through at least 2050. By then, conditions will be rife for the southern pine beetle’s proliferation from Southern Maine to Ohio under any climate scenario. By 2080, they could be in sub-Arctic Canada.

Study lead author Corey Lesk, a graduate student working with Radley Horton, said:

“We’re looking at some pretty devastating effects on localized forests, like the coastal pitch pine forests, which are especially susceptible,”

Southern pine beetles have been particularly damaging toward pitch pines in Maine’s coastal forests, which support rare and threatened ecosystems. Also at risk are the New Jersey pinelands, and pine forests on New York’s Long Island and in the Adirondack mountains.

This is not just an economic issue. It will also impact the economy. Pine forests are vital to regional tourism and logging industries. According to the U.S. Forest Service, from 1977 to 2004, timber producers lost around $43 million per year to southern pine beetle infestations.

Image credit: Erich Vallery/USDA

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, and Medium.