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Global warming threatens our forests

ROBERT CIFELLI, KEITH HAY and DAVID NIMKIN
special to the daily

Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) wisely avoided getting sucked into a debate over the existence of global warming at a recent climate change hearing in Estes Park because there is no debate. The senators also did not question the fact that global warming is at least partly responsible for pine beetle infestation and other environmental threats to Rocky Mountain National Park – and with good reason. There is a firm consensus among scientists that drought and warmer winters – due to global warming – have exacerbated the pine beetle problem.

The fact that human activity – particularly burning fossil fuels – is warming the planet has been recognized by major national and international scientific bodies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union in the United States, as well as thousands of expert scientists worldwide who collaborated on the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The U.S. Global Climate Research Project, a collaboration of 13 federal agencies, recently echoed the IPPC’s conclusion: “Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced,” it stated in its June 2009 report. “Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years.

This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.”

As for the pine beetle, according to an August 2009 report by the National Parks Conservation Association, warmer temperatures and drought triggered by global warming has made lodgepole pines more vulnerable to beetles. The dryer climate in Rocky Mountain National Park has hindered the trees’ ability to produce enough resin to drown the beetles, and the cold snaps that kill the pests have become less frequent. The U.S. Forest Service now projects that all mature lodgepole forests in Colorado will be dead by 2013.

Warmer temperatures in recent decades also has enabled the beetle to complete its lifecycle in one year instead of two – which could double its population growth rate – and allowed the beetle to move to higher elevations, where it threatens whitebark pines that have no natural defenses to it.

Because global warming pollutants remain in the atmosphere for a long time, it is critical that we move quickly to establish a cap on emissions. It is equally imperative that we provide the National Park Service and other land management agencies with the resources they need to safeguard our forests, fish and wildlife from climate change impacts already underway. There are actions we can take on the ground to protect lodgepole and whitebark pines. Given that the beetles generally ignore young trees and attack ones that are 5 to 6 inches in diameter, we should create forests of different age-group trees. We also should encourage the growth of a diversity of tree species. Monocultures of mature trees are indeed a problem.

We need to be better stewards of forests in Colorado and across the American West. But we also have to squarely address global warming, and we have to do it now.

Robert Cifelli is a senior research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Keith Hay, an energy advocate for Environment Colorado, is based in Denver. David Nimkin, the Southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, is based in Salt Lake City.


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