02 August 2009

Pine Beetles, Fire and Climate Change

Based on the comments, I see an interest in a thread on the pine beetle outbreak here in the west. As luck would have it, the current issue of the University of Colorado Arts and Sciences magazine has an interesting article on just this topic by Clint Talbott. Here is a provocative excerpt (emphasis added):

The forest around Grand Lake, Colo., is neither pretty nor, for the most part, green. Whole mountainsides are draped with dead trees bearing orange needles and bare branches. The pine beetles have attacked, and people have responded with chainsaws, insecticides and anxiety about fire.

Conventional wisdom suggests that decades of U.S. Forest Service policy of extinguishing all fires on public lands—also called “fire suppression”—have left forests more prone to beetle attacks, and that these dead trees are more likely than live trees to erupt in wildfires.

But the latest and best scientific research does not buttress conventional wisdom. The research suggests that the pine-beetle outbreaks coincide with warmer, drier years. It finds no compelling evidence that once the dead needles have fallen from the trees (i.e. when the “red phase” disappears a few years after attack) dead stands of pine are more likely than live stands to burn. Scientists also find no evidence that this outbreak is unprecedented over time spans of several centuries, or that human fire-suppression has made western U.S. forests unusually prone to fire.


  1. Dr. Pielke,

    There are occasions when common sense and practical experience trump science -- especially political science.

    1) The portions of this report dealing with logging sound to me like just another example of political science in defense of the environmental extremists who created portions of the various pressures which hounded the Forest Service into unwise and unnatural forest management. We’ve learned better -- deal with it.

    2) Quoting your citation:

    “researchers have found that dead trees—even those bristling with dry, brittle needles—are not more likely to ignite”

    A) Anybody who has ever built a campfire with green wood vs. dry wood knows better.

    B) Even IF the dead wood was “not more likely to ignite” would he seriously argue that the fire in a dead stand would behave no differently and spread no faster than in a live stand?

    3) I can look out my window and see the tinder box created by Forest Service mismanagement. And, I know that tinder box will behave more like my dry wood campfire than my green wood campfire.

    4) Sure, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that climate cycles play a role in the boom/bust cycles of pine beetles. But, as I noted in this comment, there is nothing unusual about the current pine beetle boom cycle. It sounds like the author and I agree on that much.

    4) Click here and read -- from our local climate alarmist propaganda rag -- about the frustrations of one logger in dealing with Forest Service lunacy. Here’s one quote:

    “Although the mountain pine beetle prefers large trees, Heggie is allowed to take trees only about 6 inches in diameter that could, maybe, survive the epidemic. Meanwhile, he is forced to leave behind the larger trees he would prefer and that are surely doomed.

    Heggie employee Frank ‘Red’ Peters motions toward a tree with a bore hole oozing sap, a tell-tale sign it has been hit by the mountain pine beetle. A band of orange spray paint rings the tree, telling the loggers not to touch it.

    ‘I tell you what, we’ve wasted so much timber around here it ain’t even funny,’ Peters said. ‘These are the ones that should have been taken. Really, what good did we do?’ ”

    Again, as I mentioned before, the good news is that we are FINALLY seeing loggers around here actually taking down lots of beetle killed trees. It is a welcome sight, at least from my vantage point.

    As Dr. Ian Plimer is fond of noting, environmental extremism is a city based religion. Some of us living and recreating in the wilder parts of the wild, wild west are not so pious.

  2. The wikipedia entry on the mountain pine beetle certainly disagrees with your highlighted quote from Talbott that suggests that the current outbreak is not unusual. I was going to copy it here, but again, your blog does not applow me to copy and paste content in, and I don't feel like typing it. But search wikipedia or mountain pine beetle.

  3. Says Veblen:

    "insect outbreaks are largely driven by climate—drought and warm temperatures.

    "Research shows that the area of land burned by wildfire between 1987 and 2003 was six times greater than that which had burned in the previous 16 years. That research shows that the same time period was characterized by increased spring and summer temperatures, longer fire seasons and earlier snowmelt.

    “The new paradigm is accepting the effects of global warming,” Veblen observes, adding that the Healthy Forests Initiative and its companion policies “basically ignored warming.”"

    This is consistent with what other scientists have explained in more detail:

  4. Roger:
    Hopefully this thread will be more empirical, less emotional, and more civil than the similar thread on ClimateProgress.

    It is interesting that the MPB infestation may not increase the incidence of fires. It is somewhat counter-intuitive but clearly a lot depends upon the nature of the original fire source.

    It is also heartening to see that Prof. Veblen does not equate the incidence of fire with global warming - but the more parsimonious and reasonable notion that drier weather (plus more lightening events) results in more forest fires.

  5. Roger:
    I misread the article: I some how missed the quote TokyoTom highlighted -
    "The new paradigm is accepting the effects of global warming,” Veblen observes, adding that the Healthy Forests Initiative and its companion policies “basically ignored warming.”"

    Is there data to support this contention. As I mentioned on the ClimateProgress thread, the actual temperature data at least for Wyoming suggests that there are cycles rather than a trend. Is the data for Colorado different? Again there is a need to focus on temperature data in the vicinity of actual fires, i.e., rural temperature data.

  6. Veblen's latest:


    I do not believe that this group's work goes deeply into attribution, but I'll ask Tom.

  7. Roger:
    The 10 plot, micro-climate study summarized in the paper abstract you linked to looks like a strong design - assuming a spread of plots across altitudes and aspects. The raw 1982-2007 temperature records for these plots should make for interesting reading.

  8. I find it odd and interesting that bernie thinks that attributing the problem to a drier climate is different than attributing it to climate change, when the climate change forecast in that region is for drier conditions.

    I'm not saying that the answer is in and done. Fires are rare enough that it will take some time to identify trends. But it does seem well-documented that the dry (i.e. fire) season has been lengthening. An early spring from global warming would certainly worsen the fires.

  9. Dean sez:

    “An early spring from global warming would certainly worsen the fires.”

    Among the many problems with that comment is the fact that NOAA data indicate that, in the Continental USA, the month of April has been in a cooling trend since at least 1985.

    Click here and further debunk the alarmist assertion regarding winter warming.

  10. Dean:
    I am simply asking for the data that supports the conclusion that the season has been lengthening and that this is a trend and not cyclical. I have cited elsewhere temperature data that indicates that March in Wyoming has been warmer in the 90s than the 60s, and a trend that appears to be holding for the current decade (see for example, http://www.wrds.uwyo.edu/sco/data/divisional_temp/Mar_Yellowstone.pdf ).
    It is pretty clear to me that drier means greater fire risk, given the same incidence of lightening strikes. Any model of this process presumably would include a count of such incidents.
    I am simply asking questions.

  11. bernie,

    You said that it was "heartening" that Veblen did not equate the fires with warming. Not exactly a question, and I inferred from this that it would be your preference. Otherwise why the use of that particular qualifier?

    I have seen numerous reports of studies showing that the warm/dry season has been getting longer for decades now. But I am not a researcher on this subject and I do not keep track of these studies, nor can I vouch for them (nor would I claim that there are no counter-results). Remember that my initial post to this thread was in response to a university newspaper's journalist who said that this beetle infestation was not unusual - which it seems some researchers would disagree with.

    The issue of whether any particular trend is related to AGW or a cycle is - for many measurements - the primary question. Given the length of the cycle period, and the time-frame for relliable measurements, some of these questions cannot be resolved quickly. With the evidence for the anthro addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, AGW is a reasonable hypothesis, but it will take time to reach a higher degree of certainty for specific impacts.

  12. Dean,

    If you rely directly upon peer reviewed science more so than the self described propaganda of so-called “journalists” and the cherry picked alarmists they deliberately select, you will begin to see the issue differently (and, more accurately).

    There is a reason why James Hansen is probably the most frequently cited scientist in the media. James Hansen and Al Gore are the co-equal alarmists-in-chief.

    Again, click here for an excellent example proving that Hansen’s own primary argument is rapidly falling apart.

    I would further note that Hansen’s premise of winter warming was a very convenient one. You see, perfectly normal Milankovitch cycles (three different orbital eccentricities of the earth, the primary driver of glacial and interglacial periods) have exactly the same effect -- warmer winters in the northern hemisphere.

    And, there is a reason why the purely political IPCC and their laughable computer models are considered by the media as the gold standard in climate change assessment.

    Of course, there is one computer model -- highly touted by the 2001 IPCC assessment -- which we no longer hear much about. That would be the infamous “hockey stick” graph. Click here for another commentary.

    Click here for a good place to begin to review what the directly cited science says.

  13. Dean:
    First, I appreciate the civility of your response. It is unfortunate that one needs to remark on what should be a commonplace.

    I may have been too obtuse, but the point of my "heartening" statement (which I subsequently retracted) is the current tendency in climate science or any public policy area for that matter to use global explanations (e.g., Global Warming) to explain essentially regional phenomena (e.g., fires and MPB in the Western States). I thought somewhat mistakenly it now appears that Prof. Veblen was avoiding this type of argument. IMHO it is not a particularly scientific way of framing and explaining issues. I would have preferred a statement (plus data) that said something like "regional preciptation and temperature trends indicate ...". Demonstrate this first, then we can talk about the global scope of the issue. In fairness, the body of most research papers tend to be circumspect about the limits of their data - even if their conclusions go beyond the actual data.

    As the saying goes, just because you have a hammer, doesn't mean that every isssue has to be a nail!!

  14. Bernie - Certainly there are "trends" in how people will to attribute phenomena that are not yet fully understood. For many years, there was a bias against major catastrophes. "Catastrophism" had a bad name due to its conection with early science/bilblical issues. But now that it is accepted that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs, everybody looks for an asteroid signature for major ancient events.

    AGW aside, connecting a local happening with a global process carries with it certain aspects that will tend to lead people to see larger causes for local events. Nonetheless, it isn't unreasonable to look for an AGW connection for events that do seem to fit into the projections, as long as you include all those scientific caveats that confound journalists and politicians, who much prefer certainty.

    So while having a hammer doesn't mean that every issue is a nail, when I see a nail half-way in, I do look for a hammer first and foremost.

  15. Here is one of my favorite photos for those of you from other areas..who want to see what a community looks like with a bark beetle outbreak.


  16. 1. Dean, my earlier link provides ample support regarding the drying of the West over the past few decades and the marked consequence of fire seasons that are over two months longer than they were a few decades ago. Of course it is impossible to attribute this with any level of confidence to AGW.

    2. SBVOR: "the environmental extremists who created portions of the various pressures which hounded the Forest Service into unwise and unnatural forest management."

    Ermmm. Isn`t "unwise and unnatural forest management" what we have always had?

    Government ownership and bureaucratized management of vast tracts of land necessarily involves not only mistakes (due to inadequate information and budgetary and other incentives), but invites politicized struggles for influence by interested groups - timber cos, enviros, sportsmen, recreationists, towns, residents etc. The ultimate answer, of course, is to get the government out of the land ownership managment business, and to let people of differing preferences makes their own deals with their own money (Randal O`Toole of Cato suggests the less radical step of having separate forests run by trusts).

    3. "Hansen’s premise of winter warming was a very convenient one. You see, perfectly normal Milankovitch cycles (three different orbital eccentricities of the earth, the primary driver of glacial and interglacial periods) have exactly the same effect -- warmer winters in the northern hemisphere."

    This is way off-thread, but do Milankovich cycles operate at decadal levels? This is the first I`ve heard of anyone suggesting an attribution of recent warming to them. Are they also responsible for the recent plateau?

    4. On whether stands of dead trees are more fire-prone than live trees, I wonder if anyone has done any surveys of actual fires, such as BC has been experiencing in beetle-killed areas.