Pine beetle doom-sayers barking up the wrong tree

The turbulent science that blames humanity for climate change marks itself with smoke and mirrors. Opportunities to settle the truth are somehow sidelined. Tricks are employed to obscure the truth. When direct measurements show a negative temperature trend, indirect methods are sought to show the desired warming.
Then it is that we hear that polar ice is disappearing, polar bears are in peril, coral reefs are bleaching, there’s more rainfall, less rainfall, seasons are being disrupted, extinctions are occurring, glaciers are retreating, there’s more extreme weather, and on and on.
But these events, where true, and they often are simply untrue, are influenced by factors other than warming, so the believers also use slippery reasoning to pretend they’re caused by warming. We’re fed stories of disaster that could only be true if the temperature were going up, but it’s propaganda: when the science fails, the believers resort to misdirection. Even if it were warming, so what? What’s the cause? Believers never address the cause of warming – though that’s essential if we’re trying to stop the warming – because by now everyone thinks it’s themselves.
Rather than taking tales of alarm at face value, we try to investigate them. So to the humble North American Mountain pine beetle…

pine beetle

The Mountain Pine Beetle is tiny — about 5 mm long (same as the word “tiny”), but it packs a mighty punch: it can flatten forests.

The little beetles make interesting reading in the light of claims that the current outbreak in parts of the USA and Canada is caused by global warming.

Those claims are frivolous. Epidemics have been observed since Europeans arrived in America, long before the recent warming. In any case, the current epidemic is waning and could be over.

The epidemics are not unmitigated disasters. The beetle invasion creates opportunities that are exploited by other creatures and the forest itself is the better for it. The mountain pine beetle attacks only old or diseased trees, so their predation allows new growth to invigorate the forest.

pine beetle

The beetle is endemic to North America and never entirely vanishes from a region. A population can fluctuate greatly over several years and may diminish to almost undetectable levels, but numbers will bounce back at some point and eventually balloon into another “epidemic”. It’s possible that human activities have caused a reduction in forest fires, which could mean beetle populations are larger and survive for longer.

The mere fact that we’re interested in this little insect highlights the great commercial importance of timber.

A story on 15 June by Sophie Quinton in The Atlantic sparked this study. There’s been no “global warming” for a decade and a half, so it follows that any event ascribed to warming must have other causative factors. My curiosity was aroused.

The story begins “North America is witnessing the largest pine-beetle epidemic in recorded history. Temperature rises are more than likely to blame, but why is it so hard to admit that?”

Whether written by Quinton or a subeditor reaching for an eye-catching summary, the first sentence may be true. The “recorded history” of beetle epidemics is only about 100 years and records are unreliable. But the claim about higher temperatures being responsible is not self-evident.

pine beetle wings

Boring beetles are found throughout North America, though individual populations might plummet between epidemics. Each kind of beetle attacks a different kind of tree and has a different way of doing it. The mountain pine beetle tunnels beneath the bark to the moist, nutrient-rich phloem, where it lays eggs. The larvae feed on the phloem before emerging as winged adults to mate and subsequently lay eggs in other living trees. Much of the beetle’s life cycle is probably governed by temperature.

Thousands of tunnelling larvae under the bark disrupt sap flow, while a symbiotic fungus on the beetle infects the sapwood, curbing the tree’s defences against the beetle and further reducing the circulation of fluids. The dehydration can eventually kill the tree and many succumb. Numbers of pine beetles can climb into the gazillions during an outbreak, and millions of trees can die.


Sophie Quinton says “North America is witnessing the largest pine-beetle epidemic in recorded history.” So it’s the largest in a hundred years. Last April the Missoulian reported “Pine beetle infestation tapering off in Montana.”

A U.S. Forest Service official said that pine beetle activity in Montana was declining and the epidemic “may have reached its peak.”

Aerial surveys last year were reported in the 2011 Montana Forest Insect and Disease Conditions report prepared by the Forest Service and state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

There’s plenty of sound forest left: out of a total 20.5 million forested acres surveyed in Montana, beetle-killed trees were found on more than a million acres, down from 2 million in 2010 and 3.6 million in 2009. There are “emerging problems” with western spruce budworm and pine butterfly.

The pine beetle is not a new problem. There’s documentation dating to 1750 describing similar outbreaks. Settlers in the early 1900s apparently induced beetle infestations to help clear the land for pasture.

A report from Colorado titled “The Status of Our Scientific Understanding of Lodgepole Pine and Mountain Pine Beetles – A Focus on Forest Ecology and Fire Behavior” (undated, though it’s circa 2008) has important background, including this:

Some contend that the current epidemic with synchronous outbreaks at many locations is unprecedented and a clear warning of global climate change impacts on ecosystems around the world. Scientists and others point to other changes occurring in our region – Ips beetle-caused mortality of piñon pine in the Southern Rocky Mountains, aspen decline, and large fires in Front Range ponderosa pine forests and elsewhere. It is difficult to prove cause and effect, but all of these changes began during the last 10-15 years, coinciding with recent warm climatic conditions, increasing numbers of large trees, and advancing age of many forests. Whether or not the current epidemic is unprecedented is a question to which there is currently no clear answer because of the lack of precise information on extent and severity of beetle outbreaks prior to the early 1900s.

The report makes it clear that whether outbreaks occurred before the modern era (i.e., more than 100 years or so ago) is unknown. But it enumerates several factors that probably contributed to the current outbreak, such as “extensive forests of trees at the right age, size, and density to support large numbers of mountain pine beetles, and a climate warm enough over the last decade to favor beetle reproduction and survival.”

So it’s wrong to blame the single factor of warming even for this outbreak. Because the net warming in the period from 1993–2008, although it fluctuated a lot, according to the UAH record, was only about 0.1°C.

The NOAA Colorado temperature series is online and shows a warming trend of just 0.7°C from 1896 to 2012. That’s within the usual margin of error for temperature records of ±1°C–2°C.

Montana temperature series 1896–2012

On a Parks Canada web site page dated 2009 we’re told that pine beetle outbreaks in the mountain national parks are not new:

Two major outbreaks have occurred in Kootenay (1930-45 and 1981- present).
In Yoho there was a smaller infestation in the 1930’s, and current populations are quickly increasing.
Waterton had an extensive outbreak that occurred in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Banff had a minor outbreak between 1940-43, a smaller outbreak in the 1970’s and early 1980’s in the Upper Spray Valley.
In 1999, mountain pine beetle was recorded for the first time in Jasper.

pine beetle

It seems unlikely the outbreak of pine beetle was caused by the minuscule amount of warming recorded there. In the absence of expert agreement, the claim is highly suspect.

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25 Thoughts on “Pine beetle doom-sayers barking up the wrong tree

  1. Mike Jowsey on 26/06/2012 at 5:40 pm said:

    Oh Richard you are such a skeptic. Just get on board will you? Who cares about natural cycles and CO2-caused increased growth rates of forests which now support larger populations of parasites? We just want headlines! Headlines sell papers! Headlines I tell ya! Otherwise all we have is ‘boring beetles’.


  2. Billy on 26/06/2012 at 5:59 pm said:

    Hi Mike,noooooooooo,there’s more than beetles.Richard C (in the last post)suggested to me that fat bottomed girls make the world go round.He’s right.They not only make the world go round,they make my head go round.(Spin).Maybe they should tax them,as I exhale more co2 when observing them.

    • Richard C (NZ) on 26/06/2012 at 6:37 pm said:

      Govt austerity measures, famines, food crises, financial depressions etc go a long way to self-correcting any obesity outbreak. NZ is apparently now beset with the phenomenon and it has been endemic in USA for some time. The sub-prime mortgage crises didn’t make big inroads in reducing obesity in the USA but I suspect those forced into tent cities would have lost a few kilos.

      Apart from European austerity, there doesn’t appear to be an obesity curing event on the horizon in the western world but I’m sure there will be something eventually.

      I recently had the experience of observing the travails of an obese girl in a kiwifruit packhouse where most functions are performed standing for hours on end. I could not conceive how she had got in her condition in the first place her being so young, neither could I believe the company had hired her for the function she was assigned. Sure enough, she was sitting down in tears in no time and only lasted about half a shift. To put things in perspective, I lost about 5 – 6 kilos in the space of a month doing the physically intensive work I was doing there and I’ve heard of others losing 7 kilos in a couple of weeks. To keep weight up in the dynamic jobs it is necessary to spend a good portion of earnings on food in excess of normal diet.

      In that girl’s case, hard work was not the cure for obesity because the girl couldn’t perform the work in her condition. I think she needed a supervised transition of progressively increasing duration and intensity starting at about 1 – 2 hrs max light work per day

  3. Richard C (NZ) on 26/06/2012 at 7:04 pm said:

    Where’s an entomologist when you need them? Ruud Kleinpaste, are you there?

    “Temperature rises are more than likely to blame”

    Possibly, but so what? The anthro “rise” scare is over.

    “….but why is it so hard to admit that?”

    No so hard if causation is proved, impossible if it isn’t.

    If nothing else, I now know a lot more about “boring beetles” and 100% more about North American Mountain pine beetles than I did before. Maybe it will come in useful one day.

  4. Billy on 26/06/2012 at 7:41 pm said:

    Hi RC,yes,obesity is becoming a problem in NZ.The thing is,I am 60kg’s,and have been since I was 15.I have tried to gain weight,to no avail.Overweight people can lose weight easier than I can gain weight.I have tried eating large amounts of chocolate,takeaways etc.But still remain the same.If I call someone fat,they hate it,but think it’s call me skinny,which I am.I am 66yrs old now,and my weight doesn’t alter.Being called skinny is just as hurtful as being called fat,believe me.But I take that with a grain of salt,I’m use to it.Visited Auckland a week ago and observed the water in the viaduct.Looked so clean.We have come a long way with pollution.
    That is a good thing.I can remember Ngamutu beach in new plymouth covered in sewage from the ships discharges.It doesn’t happen now.O.K.guys,I’m of to have tea and put a bit of fat on me,but I’m not holding my breath.Have a good night.

    • Andy on 26/06/2012 at 7:50 pm said:

      We really do cover all bases here don’t we? Weight loss, counseling, your one stop shop…

    • Richard C (NZ) on 26/06/2012 at 9:10 pm said:

      “.I have tried to gain weight,to no avail.Overweight people can lose weight easier than I can gain weight.I have tried eating large amounts of chocolate,takeaways etc.But still remain the same”

      I know EXACTLY what you mean Billy, I’m much the same. Losing my 5 – 6 kilos at the beginning of winter was very unwelcome I assure you.

      I agree about pollution too. Years ago before my time, cyanide from gold treatment turned the Karangahape River white and dead downstream from Waihi. Now days gold mining has resumed but you can see the bottom of the river and there’s fish in it. Similar for timber treatment at Kinleith colouring the Waikato river brown but now you can see the bottom of that too since pollution control measures took effect (same for particulate emissions to the air).

      And yes Andy, an eclectic off topic range of topics. I especially like the odd juxtaposition of boring beetles and obesity. What could possibly be the connection? Oh yes, CO2.

  5. Peter Fraser on 26/06/2012 at 8:46 pm said:

    I will be interested to see what NIWA and Jim Salinger have to say about NZ temperatures for this June. Last June they were gleefully telling us the then delayed ski season was evidence of global warming. With no empiracal evidence and only my aging bones to tell me, this feels like a very cold start to winter. As some warmist once said “you must expect cold temperatures with climate change.”

    • Andy on 26/06/2012 at 8:54 pm said:

      If last years delayed start of the ski season was evidence for global warming according to NIWA, then what is this years bumper start for the ski season evidence for?

      The answer, as we know, is…….

      …….Global Warming.

    • Richard C (NZ) on 26/06/2012 at 9:23 pm said:

      I have to say that winter here in the BoP has been very kind so far, just a bit frosty in the normal places but nothing at all like SI and lower NI. Blowing up a bit now though.

      Thank goodness – I’m as skinny as a rake thanks to my aforementioned kiwifruit stint but the good thing is that the days are getting longer now.

      Having said that, there will probably be global warming induced record cold for the rest of winter.

  6. @Andy, “We really do cover all bases here don’t we?”

    I like it. I put coins in your slots and I never know what you’ll come out with — but it’s always interesting.

    Dad, what does “off topic” mean?

  7. Alexander K on 27/06/2012 at 11:18 am said:

    Richard C, I hate to be picky, but the gorge you named is ‘Karangahake’, not ‘Karangahape’.
    I had read about the beetle infestation previously and see many such studies as parts of the general AGW scary-monster machine.
    I have travelled extensively and obesity, IMHO, is a huge problem throughout the Western world, frequently caused by parents and almost the entire section of society they inhabit being utterly clueless about the importance of cooking and serving good basic meals. I was teaching in a school for teenage boys in the UK a few years ago and was horrified by the fact that most of the boys enjoyed a breakfast comprising a can of full-strength Coke and a small chocolate bar of some kind on their way to school and by the rubbish the Dinner Ladies fed the boys on in the school dining hall – huge quantities of baked beans and over-fried chips, plus other foods that looked utterly inedible to my Antipodean eyes. My Head Teacher was surprised when I advised him that many of the school’s behaviour problems stemmed from the boys’ diet of red food colouring and overdoses of saturated fats. It was easy to see that the boys’ behaviour reached a peak of silliness after lunch! This was about the time that Jamie Oliver began his campaign for healthy school meals; most English people I taught with couldn’t understand what Jamie was on about!
    And I wish I had Billy’s problem, too. I am 72, a keen hobby cook and have always been able to gain weight with ridiculous ease, seemingly by inhaling the fumes from a good dinner as I walked past the table. I now enjoy a gym-based fitness regime in which the trainer has advised me to forget the scales and to balance calories ingested against exercise. I hated the regime for the first few months, but now look forward to each thrice-weekly work-out and have been surprised by the things I can now do that seemed completely beyond my reach when I began. It’s incredibly easy to become totally unfit and it can sneak up on one while one is busy doing stuff that seems really important.

    • Richard C (NZ) on 27/06/2012 at 12:52 pm said:

      Alexander, good to hear you’re using it, not losing it.

      The “greatest moral crisis of our time” climate crisis does fade a little in significance when the developed world is killing themselves by a number of means including calorie intake combined with sedentary living and the undeveloped world is dying after walking hundreds of miles looking for food and finding none.except what the developed world (mainly USA) is able to produce in excess after fulfilling domestic and export orders (and now bio-fuel allocation)..

      The “bio-fuel allocation” being a major MISS-allocation when it displaces human food production as those at the down-stream end of the corn supply chain are discovering..

      A number of pundits e.g. Jo Nova, have explored the opportunity cost of the many billions of $$s diverted to climate change research at the expense of health research and initiatives.

      And to stay on topic, may I just say – boring beetles.

      BTW, feel free to be picky Alexander. Someone has to take the reins when the Spelling Sheriff falls asleep up front.

    • Andy on 27/06/2012 at 1:12 pm said:

      I still have the image of Jamie Oliver making Chicken Nuggets by grinding up chicken skin and offal in a blender.

      I’ve never wanted to see Chicken Nuggets (or Turkey Swizlers) ever again in my life.

      Mind you, I think a visit to an abattoir can have a similar effect.

    • Richard C (NZ) on 27/06/2012 at 5:14 pm said:

      Would beetles be more acceptable to your palette Andy?

      Some recipes here

      Also, entomophagy –the art of insect eating.

      Some Edible Species

      Is that a North American Mountain pine beetle in Display Case 4?

  8. Richard C (NZ) on 27/06/2012 at 1:10 pm said:

    Bob D if you’re lurking.

    I’ve been in an “exchange” (only one warmist taker, the sceptics whimped out) at JoNova arguing that polynomial trends are more appropriate for fluctuating temperature data than linear regressions and presenting the case.

    The Microsoft Chart guide being the most relevant in the following link but there’s up and down thread stuff too

    Grist perhaps for our ongoing stoush with Ken Perrott if he turns up again.

    Oh yes, before I forget – boring beetles.

  9. Billy on 27/06/2012 at 8:49 pm said:

    Hi RC,I find insects etc.very interesting.I see there are tarantulas going to being kept and bred in Wellington.I love those spiders.I also have an affection for snakes.Have spent time in OZ,and handled a few.Tame ones of coarse.They are easier to handle than those fat bottomed girls you talk about.Is it just me,or has Mann,Hansen,Jones,Briffa et at become quiet?The moonbat seems to be stirred up.Mainly over the success,(failure)of Rio+20.The warmists surely must feel they’re in a corner.Who did we send on that junket?Oh,AK,don’t worry about a wee bit of fat on you,I wish I had some.OT,in New Plymouth,the tui has been coming back over the last 2 or 3 years.They are singing in the trees each morning.Not sure if its co2 or global warming,but they sure are a welcome sight.
    Sorry,Im not a climatologist,so can’t add anything about forcings,feedbacks,water vapour,co2 and the likes,so I leave that to you experts.I have to go completely off my observations.Sea water quality has increased 10 fold in my 45 yrs around NZ harbours.The water around the Tui oil field here is prestine.Fish,seals etc.are in abundance right alongside the FPSO.But naturally that doesn’t get reported.No scare tactics there.Looks like the Kupe field is going to expand.That is a bonus for all NZ.O.K.guys,I’ve dribbled on enough.AK,if you have a bit extra fat,send it my way.Just not in the way of a fat bottomed girl.At my age I couldn’t handle it.Have a good night,cheers,Billy

    • Richard C (NZ) on 28/06/2012 at 1:38 pm said:

      Hey Billy, you’re way ahead of the pack (MH is Matthew Huber):-

      At the point where the average global temperature rise hits 10°C, “even Siberia reaches values exceeding anything in the present-day tropics” and many populated parts of the globe might become, if habitable at all, places where the relatively affluent would likely find themselves “imprisoned” in air-conditioned spaces and where “power failures would become life-threatening.” Lacking access to AC, the world’s poor would have little choice but to flee. Even “modest” global warming, Huber and Sherwood conclude, could “expose large fractions of the population to unprecedented heat stress.”

      …MH: I get hate mail and death threats on a regular basis. I’m used to thatl…I have seen some commentary by nonscientists on blogs and most of them say that I’m just another “cap-and-tax” green freak who wants big government and to outlaw guns.
      …MJ: If we do ever reach 12 degrees warming, what might that look like on the ground? Give me your sci-fi movie scenario.

      MH: My nightmare. I’m in Oklahoma on a hot summer day. Under a heat lamp. Running. Wrapped in plastic.

      MJ: This could clearly be a selective biological pressure on humans. Would we end up eventually evolving to deal with greater heat, as you report that mammals did during the Eocene era?

      MH: The most direct way for humans to respond physiologically, which would take thousands of years if at all (we are most likely to change our behaviors) is to get small and skinny, to decrease our volume and maximize our surface area so we can lose heat more effectively

      The name “Sherwood” rings a bell too (Steven Sherwood, Hubers colleague at Australia’s University of New South Wales, taken to task by Jo Nova on occasions)

  10. Andy on 27/06/2012 at 9:20 pm said:

    RT maybe we could setup a dieting thread?
    Looks like a niche market to me.

    Does my denier arse look big in this?

  11. Richard C (NZ) on 28/06/2012 at 10:45 am said:

    I wonder how the “largest pine-beetle epidemic in recorded history” is faring in the wildfires?

    Maybe a cure for the epidemic has been found, or perhaps it’s been there all the time.

    Secondary forest

    A secondary forest (or second-growth forest) is a forest or woodland area which has re-grown after a major disturbance such as fire, insect infestation, timber harvest or windthrow, until a long enough period has passed so that the effects of the disturbance are no longer evident. It is distinguished from an old-growth forest (primary or primeval forest), which have not undergone such disruptions, as well as third-growth forests that result from severe disruptions in second growth forests.

    Depending on the forest, the development of primary characteristics may take anywhere from a century to several millennia. Hardwood forests of the eastern United States, for example, can develop primary characteristics in one or two generations of trees, or 150-500 years.

    It takes a secondary forest typically forty to 100 years to begin to resemble the original old-growth forest……
    Today most of the forest of the United States, the eastern part of North America and Europe consist of secondary forest.

    Well how ’bout that?

  12. Mike Jowsey on 29/06/2012 at 1:45 pm said:


    Warmer-than-usual winters also allow tree-killing mountain pine beetles to survive the winter and attack Western forests, leaving behind dry wood to fuel wildfires earlier in the season, Running said.

    • Andy on 29/06/2012 at 2:15 pm said:

      I wonder if the Stuff editors ever read the comments section on their stories.

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