A plague of tiny mountain pine beetles, each no bigger than a grain of rice, has already destroyed 15 years of log supplies in British Columbia, enough trees to build 9 million single-family homes, and is chewing through forests in Alberta and the Pacific Northwest. Now, an outbreak of spruce beetles is threatening to devour even more trees in North America just as similar pests are decimating supplies in parts of Europe, creating a glut of dead and dying logs.
The bugs are thriving as climate change warms winters that would normally keep them at bay, destroying a swath of the world’s timber supplies. That may eventually spur shortages for the global housing market. Right now, lumber prices are soaring to record highs thanks to a surge in pent-up repair, renovation and housing demand sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
All told, the beetles felled 730 million cubic meters of pine between 2000 and 2015 in British Columbia, Canada’s largest exporter of timber to the U.S. housing market. That has erased more than a decade of lumber supplies and will reduce the allowable production in the B.C. Interior by a staggering 40 percent, said David Elstone, owner of Vancouver-based Spar Tree Group. Provincial modeling indicates about 55 percent of B.C.’s marketable pine trees will be dead by the end of 2020.
Squashing these bugs is no easy feat, according to Caroline Whitehouse, a forest health specialist for the province of Alberta. Helicopters scour areas of Alberta’s northern timberland looking for pine tree whose green needles have turned a ghastly red. Whitehouse’s team on the ground then ferrets out pines oozing a creamy, reddish resin to confirm 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 Whitehouse, noting Alberta’s efforts have reduced the area that could have been impacted by the mountain pine beetle by 30 percent. Still, the pests have affected more than 2.2 million hectares (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, said Allan Carroll, professor of insect ecology and director of the Forest Sciences Program at the University of British Columbia.
Temperatures have climbed in the province more quickly than across the world in general. The nighttime minimum average temperature in winter rose by 3.1 degrees Celsius between 1900 and 2013, according to provincial records. 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 in.
The wily insects chew through the bark and convert the tree’s only defense mechanism — a toxic sticky, resin — into pheromones to alert thousands of their friends to join in on the mass attack, using it as a place to lay their eggs and eventually killing it.
The only way to stop the rapid spread is to find and destroy infected trees. The epidemic, which took off in the early 2000s, spurred a massive salvage operation in B.C. as sawmills raced to process and export timber before the dying trees lost market value. Since 2005, about 40 sawmills have gone out of business following the collapse of the U.S. housing market and as timber shortages emerged from the fallout of the bugs. Further closures are expected to occur in the coming years, Elstone said.
The beetles have spread to neighboring Alberta, where they have destroyed chunks of forest normally harvested for timber and which are also valuable caribou habitat. At the same time, the bug’s cousin, the spruce beetle, is threatening to take a bite out of B.C.’s spruce tree supplies.
The situation is even worse in Europe, where several years of hot summers and dry winters have left drought-stressed trees ripe for the spread of bugs. About a dozen European countries have outbreaks of the spruce bark beetle, including significant infestations in Germany and the Czech Republic, said Russ Taylor, managing director of FEA Canada. The amount of lumber destroyed in the outbreak could surpass how much the mountain pine beetle killed in B.C. should existing climate conditions persist, according to an FEA report.
"In the Czech Republic the beetle kill is bigger than their total harvest capacity,” Taylor said. "They’re fighting a losing battle.”
It’s a vicious cycle. As a result of climate change, forests are more easily attacked and killed by beetles as older, more mature trees are the most affected by drought, Taylor said. The bugs, in turn, impact the ability of forests to absorb carbon and emit oxygen, indirectly creating more climate change and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The situation has already upended normal trade flows. Central Europe is now one of the world’s lowest-cost suppliers, sending a surge of cheap, damaged timber to China. Eventually, Europe will be in the same boat as B.C., tightening supplies just as the U.S. housing market starts to recover and need more wood, Taylor said.
To be sure, there is still an ample supply of lumber down in the southern U.S. and forest inventory could grow as parts of the world become more adept at using technology to plant and grow faster-maturing trees, said Mark Wilde, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets in New York. Right now, it can take as many as 80 years for a pine tree in B.C. to reach maturity.
Canadian producers have already shifted their sights to the southern United States, where they have bought mills and expanded their operations. Less than half of Canfor Corp.’s lumber capacity comes from Canada, down from 88 percent just seven years ago, according to a company spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, scientists like Carroll say increased climate variability and warmer temperatures are going to boost the number of outbreaks of beetles and other insects in the decades to come. The bugs are able to thrive as forests become stressed and the markets often don’t accommodate what he calls the solid and beautiful truth: "ecology trumps all.”
"I’m astonished how an animal the size of a grain of rice could alter the ecological landscape,” Carroll said. "That’s the craziness of this whole thing.”
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