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Saving forests from the bark beetle

Fueled by climate change, outbreaks of bark beetle infestations affect millions of forest hectacres in western North America. Because trees are killed, an outbreak can affect water supply, carbon storage, water quality and nutrient cycling in forests. Knowing the precise ecological processes that occur after a beetle infestation enables policymakers and foresters to form strategic management plans.

NSF-funded researchers created a conceptual framework describing the impacts of mountain pine beetle outbreaks weeks to decades after an infestation. After studying past research on bark beetle infestation, the researchers identified four stages of tree mortality associated with an outbreak:

  • Stage 1 (days to weeks following an infestation)--Beetles infest and kill larger diameter trees, leaving smaller trees unaffected. The beetles introduce blue stain fungi, decreasing and eventually preventing water transport in the tree.
  • Stage 2 (months after infestation)--The magnitude of impact expands to the ecosystem scale.
  • Stage 3 (years after an infestation)--Needles fall from killed trees which decreases leaf area and increases the energy available for snowmelt. As a consequence, cascading impacts occur related to coupled biogeophysical and biogeochemical processes of the watershed. Increased needle decomposition and continued root decomposition from Stage 2 affect carbon and nitrogen cycling. Furthermore, the increase in energy available for melt processes changes stream flow characteristics as well as transpiration.
  • Stage 4 (decades after infestation)--The snags (standing, dead or dying trees) fall down and transition to a new ecosystem is defined.

The scientists anticipate that this conceptual model will inform future research in this area and also highlight future research needs and management implications of the infestations.

The research appeared in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Images (1 of )

  • a mountain pine beetle
  • a forest days after bark beetle infestation
  • a forest weeks after bark beetle infestation
  • a forest years after bark beetle infestation
  • a forest decades after bark beetle infestation
  • a map of the pacific northwest shows areas affected by bark beetles from 1997 to 2010
A mountain pine beetle.
Ron Long, Simon Fraser University,
A forest days after a bark beetle infestation.
A forest weeks after infestation.
A forest years after infestation.
A forest decades after infestation.
Beetle infestations 1997-2010.

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