Year 4, Month 12, Day 15: That’s Not A Feature

The New York Times, on New Jersey’s pine beetle problem:

BLUE ANCHOR, N.J. — “Heads up!”

Deep in the woods, the whine of chain saws pierced the fall air, and Steve Garcia shouted a warning to fellow loggers as a 40-foot pitch pine crashed to the ground.

He was chopping down trees to save the forest as part of New Jersey’s effort to beat back an invasion of beetles.

In an infestation that scientists say is almost certainly a consequence of global warming, the southern pine beetle is spreading through New Jersey’s famous Pinelands.

It tried to do so many times in the past, but bitterly cold winters would always kill it off. Now, scientists say, the winters are no longer cold enough. The tiny insect, firmly entrenched, has already killed tens of thousands of acres of pines, and it is marching northward.

Scientists say it is a striking example of the way seemingly small climatic changes are disturbing the balance of nature. They see these changes as a warning of the costly impact that is likely to come with continued high emissions of greenhouse gases.

I was in the NYT in August, so this is a long shot. But what the hell. December 3:

New Jersey’s outbreak of pine beetles is part of a larger story. The predicament of the Pinelands is shared with the maple trees now producing insufficient sap for Vermont’s syrup industry, and with the Midwest’s drought-ravaged cornfields. Beyond our nation’s borders, the story includes tiny landholders in Bangladesh whose farms are threatened by rising sea levels, and the citizens of island nations gloomily awaiting the day their homelands disappear beneath the waves.

Each individual, community and nation is affected differently by the onrushing greenhouse effect. With a cast of billions, the story of climate change is one of a grave threat to our shared humanity and the future we share.

Climate action needs to be polycentric and polytemporal; diverse local responses should be coordinated with broader regional initiatives — and immediate action must be integrated into a multi-generational effort. When it comes to climate change, “now” means the next millennium.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 11, Day 20: More Than A Few Bugs In The System

There’s a problem at the site of Flight 93, out there in the wilds of Pennsylvania:

PITTSBURGH (AP) – The grove of hemlock trees around where United Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11 is being attacked by an insect that wasn’t there 20 years ago, and some scientists say it’s an example of how climate change combines with other factors to cause environmental damage.

The problem at the Flight 93 National Memorial in southwestern Pennsylvania doesn’t involve superstorms or melting polar icecaps, but rather hemlocks battling the slow, deadly spread of a tiny creature that has only one natural predator in eastern forests – extremely cold winters.

The hemlock wooly adelgid is about the size of a match head, and for thousands of years it didn’t exist on the East Coast. Native to Asia, the insects lay their eggs on the underside of hemlock branches, and the young insects feed on the sap of the trees, often causing them to lose needles and die within five to 10 years.

Left to their own devices, hemlocks can grow to over 150 feet tall, and the dense evergreen branches create a cool, shaded environment that some liken to a forest cathedral. The tree has long flourished from the Carolinas to Maine, but after the first adelgids were discovered in Virginia during the 1950s, some areas suffered heavy die-offs.

I did a version of this letter a year or more ago, making the same point WRT pine beetles in Colorado. November 10:

Conservative politicians and their media enablers expend a lot of energy demonizing “illegal aliens”, but their ire would be better directed at the undocumented visitors who are doing genuine and profound damage: the non-native species which cross our borders in huge numbers as a consequence of climate change. The wooly adelgids now ravaging hemlocks at the site of Flight 93’s crash are a case in point.

If Republican lawmakers could overcome the anti-science biases of their tea-party constituents, they might be able to recognize the existence and causes of global warming — and we might have a chance to combat adelgid infestations and the larger climatic forces which trigger them.

What has happened to the GOP? After nurturing these parasitic ideologies for decades, America’s erstwhile “party of business” is now infested with virulent xenophobia and anti-intellectual hysteria, leaving our nation paralyzed in the face of grave and profound threats.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 9, Day 22: Why People Tear The Seam Of Anyone’s Dream Is Over My Head

Oceanic ecosystems are coming undone, notes the LA Times:

As climate change heats our oceans, you’d expect temperature-sensitive marine species to flee poleward to cooler waters. So why have some headed to warmer regions toward the equator?

Scientists have solved the puzzle. For the most part, these animals are relocating to cooler waters. But since the effects of climate change can vary widely across regions, sometimes those cooler regions are closer to the poles and sometimes they’re closer to the equator.

In other words, marine animals are still reacting to climate change, but at a local scale. And they’re doing it so reliably that you can actually measure the speed and direction of those changes by watching where animals go, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

Just another day in the Solar System. September 14:

As climate change’s effects grow more intense, we’ll see more plant and animal species on the move; the transformation of the world’s ocean populations is just one example of something that’s happening everywhere we look. But the heart of the story isn’t that creatures are traveling to more salubrious locales. The intricacy and variety of Earthly life is created by the interactions between life-forms; local and regional habitats have evolved over thousands of years to support symbiotic relationships in a richly interwoven tapestry.

A particular type of fish moving where the water is cooler doesn’t sound like that big a deal — but it could easily spell disaster for other species in an interdependent oceanic environment. When the web of life unravels in one location, it will have impacts everywhere. With billions depending on the seas for their sustenance, the news of ecosystem disruption is bad news for everyone.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 7, Day 12: The Snooze Button Lasts For Twenty Thousand Years

The local “Metro-West” paper runs a piece by Rick Holmes, who’s clearly just another DFH:

Mountain pine beetles are tiny critters, the size of a grain of rice. They bore under the bark of Western pine trees, infecting them with a fatal fungus that turns their trunks blue, dries their needles to a rusty red, and then they fall.

Cold winters kill off the beetle larvae and keep populations in check, but over the last 20 years, cold winters have become fewer and farther between. The beetles have taken full advantage of changes in the climate. They are thriving at higher altitudes and have expanded their range. They now reproduce twice a year instead of once.

In the last few years, the beetles have ravaged Rocky Mountain forests from upper Canada to New Mexico. The blight has deadened 3.3 million acres of forest in Colorado alone.

A long-running drought has left those dead pines extra crispy, and Colorado has been seeing record heat. Denver hit 105 degrees this week, and Colorado Springs has had a string of 100 degree days.

Add a spark and what to you get? Colorado is in flames. The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, having burned thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes, is the most destructive fire in state history. It broke the record set the week before by the High Park fire outside Fort Collins.

It’s still early in the wildfire season, but everything seems to be coming early this year. Hurricane season is young, but we’re already up to E for named storms. It was a warm winter here in New England as well, and the flowers seem to be blooming about three weeks ahead of schedule.

Watch the mockery begin! Sent July 1:

For a long time, the word “alarmist” appeared regularly in the arsenal of right-wing pejoratives. Anyone pointing out some of the consequences of a runaway greenhouse effect would be labeled a “climate alarmist” and mocked for presumed fealty to Al Gore (or, in Rush Limbaugh’s vernacular, “algore”). Watch what happens to Rick Holmes, who has the temerity to continue talking about the slow-motion emergency that is global climate change.

Climate scientists are the diagnostic physicians of our planet, and their increasingly urgent emergency signals have been ignored for decades by politicians and the media. Fortunately, more Americans are gradually accepting reality (even Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who acknowledged climate change recently while blithely asserting that humanity will “adapt” to its new environment).

As the world sets high-temperature records, as Colorado burns, and the seas rise far faster than experts had anticipated, “climate alarmism” is looking increasingly like simple common sense.

Warren Senders


Year 3, Month 6, Day 26: C Is For Conifers, My Kind Of Trees

The Atlantic gives us a long and detailed discussion of the pine beetle and the havoc it’s wreaking:

DILLON, Colo.–Dan Gibbs keeps dead beetles in the back of his beat-up Chevy Silverado. He has a wooden block with beetles impaled on it, each insect about the size of a grain of rice. He’s got vials of embalmed beetles and their larvae. He carries around pieces of wood that show what those tiny beetles do to a mature lodgepole pine: They drill deep into the trunk and infect the tree with a fatal fungus that stains its wood blue.

Gibbs isn’t a scientist. He’s a commissioner for Summit County, a high-altitude slice of Colorado that’s gaining fame as a ground zero, of sorts, for an epidemic that has devastated pine forests across North America. Twenty years ago, the mountainsides around Dillon were a lush green; these days, they’re gray with needle-less trees.

The pine-beetle epidemic provides perhaps the most visual evidence of climate change in the United States. But that evidence, while arresting, remains circumstantial. Scientific studies linking the factors that drove the epidemic to rising global temperatures haven’t convinced everyone, let alone prompted people here to forsake fossil fuels.

It isn’t just the dead trees. Here, near the headwaters of the Colorado River, the snow is melting earlier–and there’s less of it. Summers are drier. Threats of wildfire and water shortages have grown, changing lives and livelihoods in Colorado and across the West.

Still, it’s not simple to draw a bright line from observable phenomena to climate change. For some policymakers, the lack of clarity is frustrating. Mounting evidence that the planet is warming and that human activity is to blame hasn’t generated any sort of political momentum for action, even as, in places like Dillon, forests are dying in plain sight.

The beatings will continue until morale improves. Sent June 15:

The “undocumented aliens” Americans need to worry about are not the Latinos whom Republican politicians so freely demonize, but the invasive species migrating across our borders as a consequence of climate change. The pine beetle is a case in point.

When wildfires ravaged Arizona a year ago, Senator John McCain blamed illegal immigrants. When Colorado’s dead and dying forests inevitably go up in smoke, the real culprit won’t be a lightning bolt or a smoldering cigarette butt, but the exploding population of an insect species that has turned forests into vast stands of dessicated kindling.

If conservative lawmakers were able to admit the existence and causes of global warming, then we might have a chance to combat pine beetle infestations and the other local symptoms of a planet-wide phenomenon. Alas, anti-science ideology has burrowed beneath the surface of the Republican party, replacing common sense with climate-change denial and inflammable xenophobia.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 12, Day 23: The Menace From Earth

The Miami Herald notes a new report from NASA detailing ecosystem transformation in the wake of climate change:

Global warming could bring a major transformation for Earth’s plants and animals over the next century, a NASA study says, driving nearly half the planet’s forests, grasslands and other vegetation toward conversion into radically different ecosystems.

The ecological stress could give a boost to invasive species, but at the expense of natives, reducing the diversity of plants and animals overall.

And humans are likely, almost literally, to cut them off at the pass: When plants and animals attempt to survive by shifting their geographical ranges, as they have in past episodes of climate change, they’ll be blocked by farms and cities.

“If half the world is driven to change its vegetation cover, and meanwhile, we’ve fragmented the surface of the Earth by putting in parking lots and monoculture agricultural zones and all these other impediments to natural migration, then there could be problems,” said lead author Jon Bergengren, a global ecologist who was a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech when he did the study.

“When, suddenly, plants and animals aren’t living in habitats to which they’re adapted, then you start to get an unhealthy planet,” he said.

The comments on the article are a mass of stupid. Plus ca change…

Sent December 19:

Conservative politicians routinely ramp up their anti-immigrant rhetoric for the benefit of their xenophobic constituents. Curiously, however, they dismiss the extralegals most likely to cross America’s borders in a post-climate-change future.

Let’s leave aside the obvious fact that climate-driven resource wars and geopolitical instability are likely to lead to vastly increased numbers of refugees in the coming decades. Rather, let’s focus on the immigrant populations which will do the most damage to America: invasive species. Migrating from their customary ecological niches in response to rapid climatic shifts, these visitors will be part of a traumatic environmental transformation over the next century, rendering vast parts of the United States unrecognizable.

While disease-bearing insects, non-native plants and other such unwelcome visitors will have far greater economic impact on our nation than any undocumented human immigrants, you won’t hear any candidates for election mention them at all. I wonder why?

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 11, Day 10: That’s Not A Feature. That’s A Bug.

The Seattle Times has another go at the mountain pine beetle and its continuing assault on the region’s pine trees:

SAWTOOTH RIDGE, Okanogan County — The bug lady scoots through stick-straight lodgepole and ponderosa, and marches uphill toward the gnarled trunk of a troubled species: the whitebark pine.

The ghostly conifers found on chilly, wind-swept peaks like this may well be among the earliest victims of a warming climate. Even in the Northwest, rising temperatures at higher elevations have brought hundreds of thousands of whitebark pines in contact with a deadly predator — the mountain pine beetle — that is helping drive this odd tree toward extinction.

Connie Mehmel, with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, is one of a handful of entomologists struggling to track the beetles’ destructive path.

Mountain pine beetles are probably best-known here as the trunk-girdling devils that have reddened and deadened millions of acres of lodgepole, exposing the Northwest to a greater potential for cataclysmic wildfires. But the evolutionary history of lodgepole pine and beetles is so intertwined that those forests in many places are expected to grow back.

Whitebark pines may not.

I used the invasive species = illegal immigrants angle before, but it’s been a while. Sent November 6:

As climate change continues to transform local and regional ecosystems, we’ll see more invasive species on the move. The dying whitebark pine is one example of a planet-wide phenomenon.

Given conservative Republicans’ near-obsessive fixation on illegal immigration, this would seem to be an issue on which they could find common ground with environmental activists. Few of the unwanted aliens that keep tea-party xenophobes up at night wreak as much havoc on the lives of good honest Americans as the mountain pine beetle. Similarly, when insect carriers of tropical diseases move across our national borders, the public health crises they create are obvious examples of the damage wrought by illegal aliens. Hell, those malarial mosquitoes probably don’t even speak English!

But invasive species like the mountain pine beetle and white pine blister rust are genuine threats, not props for electoral posturing. Which means they’ll probably be ignored until it’s too late.

Warren Senders