Sunday, March 4, 2012

When Will the Rockies Blow?

A few years ago the Memsahib and I and her kids and their kids took a vacation to Estes Park, portal to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Had a great time.  A couple of times we drove into the Park.  We saw things the casual visitor hardly ever sees from the road -- a badger (probably not a honey badger) and a bear, along with the stuff you can frequently see (a herd of elk in the upper elevations).  A rainbow ending in a meadow.  Great trip.

I was shocked by one thing that I saw there:   Enormous stands of lodgepole pine, dying tree by tree.  I could hardly believe how serious the attack was in this area of protected natural beauty:

An ill-placed lightning bolt would take out huge swaths of piney mountainside, I thought.  Surely, I thought, someone must be worried about this. 

The reason for this massive dying is well-known:  It's the depredations of the Mountain Pine Beetle.  Actually, there are a dozen or so species of this pest that have moved up from Mexico over the years.  Their activities strip the bark from the trees, water cannot move up to the branches from the roots, and the tree dies.

Turns out, of course, that a lot of people are worried about this.  I have seen it written that global warming is responsible, allowing the beetles to live through winters that would otherwise keep their numbers down.  That theory has been replaced more recently by pointing the finger at the droughts of 2002 and 2003.  The trees would defend themselves by releasing more sap in the areas of the initial attack, something they are not equipped to do in times of very low precipitation. 

But despite the staggering loss of timber, I was very surprised to see that, aesthetic considerations aside, some authorities are not terribly worried about fire.  Here's a clip from an article from a University of Miami School of Communication site quoting experts on "Our National Parks":

"The effects that the mountain pine beetle has had on the park are debatable. It was widely believed that the increased number of dead trees made the park much more susceptible to fires, but this belief is fading as recent studies show that there is only a one-year period where the dead trees are in a "red" phase (the color of the pine needles on the tree) where they add to the fuel load of the park. After that, the dead trees enter into a "gray" phase, where the chances of catching on fire are slimmer."

Really?  A dry grey tree won't burn like a dry gray one?  OK, they're the experts.  More interesting studies:

"But according to preliminary research results from NASA and University of Wisconsin forest ecologists, large fires do not appear to occur more often or with greater severity in forest tracts with beetle damage. In fact, the researchers find that in some cases, swaths of beetle-killed forest may actually be less likely to burn than those without."   (Fourmile Canyon Fire: Perhaps Not a Sign of Things to Come)

There is about this view a flavor of new thinking about forest fires in general -- that they're inevitable and even desirable to clear out old dead growth and start a vital new cycle of vegetation, including pines.  Witness the comeback of Yellowstone following the fires in 1988  (This view -- that this attack is "natural" and, at least as far as fire is concerned, not as dire as it appears -- is seriously irritating to the global warming folks.  Google "North America's Mountain Pine Beetle Pandemic" and click on that PDF that should be first on the list.) 

Even if fire isn't the threat it appears, the aesthetics are appalling and, of course, the death of entire mountainsides has an affect on the ecosystem of the area in many other ways. 

One of the charms of blogging -- you learn a little something you didn't expect all the time.

1 comment:

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