From: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University
Published August 28, 2017 03:34 PM

Climate May Drive Forest-Eating Beetles North, Says Study

Over the next few decades, global warming-related rises in winter temperatures could significantly extend the range of the southern pine beetle—one of the world’s most aggressive tree-killing insects—through much of the northern United States and southern Canada, says a new study. The beetle’s range is sharply limited by annual extreme temperature lows, but these lows are rising much faster than average temperatures—a trend that will probably drive the beetles’ spread, say the authors. The study was published today in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The study points to “huge vulnerability across a vast ecosystem,” said lead author Corey Lesk, a researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research and an incoming graduate student in the university’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “We could see loss of biodiversity and iconic regional forests. There would be damage to tourism and forestry industries in already struggling rural areas.”  Coauthor Radley Horton, a researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said infested forests could also dry out and burn, endangering property and emitting large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Until recently, southern pine beetles lived from Central America up into the southeastern United States, but in the past decade or so they have also begun appearing in parts of the Northeast and New England. Substantial outbreaks began occurring in New Jersey in 2001. The beetles were first found on New York’s Long Island in New York in 2014 and Connecticut in 2015.

Lesk and Horton project that by 2020, the beetles will establish themselves along the Atlantic coast up to Nova Scotia. They say that by 2050, 78 percent of the 48,000 square miles now occupied by pitch pine forests from southern Maine to eastern Ohio will have climates newly suitable to the beetles. By 2060, they expect the beetle will further establish itself from southern New England through Wisconsin, and by 2080, climates suitable for the beetle should reach 71 percent of red pines and 48 percent of jack pines, which extend across more than 270,000 square miles of the northeastern United States and southern Canada.

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