Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Tree killers, yes, fire starters, no: Mountain pine beetles get a bad rap, study says

30.09.2014

Mountain pine beetles get a bad rap, and understandably so. The grain-of-rice-sized insects are responsible for killing pine trees over tens of millions of acres in the Western U.S. and Canada over the last decade.

But contrary to popular belief, these pests may not be to blame for more severe wildfires like those that have recently swept through the region. Instead, weather and topography play a greater role in the ecological severity of fires than these bark-boring beetles.

New research led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources provides some of the first rigorous field data to test whether fires that burn in areas impacted by mountain pine beetles are more ecologically severe than in those not attacked by the native bug.

In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, UW-Madison zoology professor Monica Turner and her graduate student, Brian Harvey, show pine beetle outbreaks contributed little to the severity of six wildfires that affected more than 75,000 acres in the Northern Rocky Mountains in 2011.

They also show that the beetle outbreaks, which occurred from 2000 through 2010, have not directly impacted post-fire recovery of the forests. The study does not, however, address fire behavior, such as how quickly fires spread or how dangerous they are to fight.

While the findings may exonerate the insect scapegoats, they should also help ecosystem managers better respond to changes in the face of climate-driven disturbances, like drought and warmer temperatures.

Large, severe fires are typical in the lodgepole pine forests found throughout the region, even without mountain pine beetle outbreaks. However, as the climate has warmed, outbreaks and big fires have both become more common. The phenomenon of more beetles has meant more dead trees, and some have grown concerned about how beetle attacks and wildfires may interact.

"The conventional wisdom is that a forest of dead trees is a tinder box just waiting to burn up," says Turner, who has long studied the forest landscape of the Mountain West. "There were very little data out there but a lot of concern."

Forests attacked by bark beetles — which burrow into the bark of lodgepole pines to mate and incubate their larvae — can seem nothing more than ample kindling for a raging blaze, with their dead wood and dry, reddish-brown needles.

The burrows the beetles carve under the bark of pines, called galleries, choke off water and nutrient circulation in the trees. The trees die and, for the first couple of years, they hold on to their dry, lifeless needles. Scientists call this the "red stage," and some believe these trees could fuel more severe fires.

By year three, most beetle-attacked trees have entered the "gray stage," dropping their once green pine foliage, becoming needleless wood carcasses.

Earlier studies from Turner's group suggested that beetle outbreaks would not lead to more severe fires. But without actual fires, the interaction could not be tested.

However, in 2011, wildfires throughout eastern Idaho and western Montana — in forests that had experienced varying mountain pine beetle outbreak impacts — provided opportunity for the research team to begin to answer the question: Do the two disturbances, beetle attacks and wildfire, together change the ecological response of the forest to fire?

Fortunately for the team, among the burned areas studied were pine stands that had not been attacked by beetles. These areas served as controls. Others suffered a range of mortality from the beetles; in some stands, beetles killed nearly 90 percent of the trees prior to wildfire. The fires that raged also ran the spectrum of severity, allowing the researchers to compare a number of variables.

Some study plots comprised mostly live trees, while others contained mostly red-stage or gray-stage trees — allowing the researchers to assess whether plots with red-stage trees (with dry needles) experienced greater levels of fire severity than plots with mostly gray-stage trees (no needles), as they and others had expected.

The study team examined ecosystem indicators of fire severity, such as how many trees were killed by fire and how much char covered the forests.

Engaging in what Harvey calls "post-fire detective work," in 2012, the scientific team evaluated fire severity in each study plot and stripped sections of bark from over 10,000 trees to determine what killed them, beetles or fire. Beetle galleries can remain visible under the bark even after fire.

As they sifted through the blackened trees and forest floor, the team became covered with ash and soot.

"We looked like coal miners when we were done," says Harvey.

They found that the severity of the outbreak and whether trees were in the red or gray stage had almost no effect on fire severity under moderate burning conditions.

Only under more extreme fire-burning conditions — when it was hot, dry and windy — did areas with more beetle-killed trees show signs of more ecologically severe fires, such as more deeply burned trunks and crowns (the part of the tree that includes its limbs and needles). The presence of more gray-stage trees actually had a stronger impact on fire severity than the amount of red-stage trees, to the surprise of the scientists.

Overall, however, Turner says the effects of beetle outbreaks on fire severity took a back seat to stronger drivers — primarily weather and topography. Fire severity increased under more extreme weather, regardless of pre-fire outbreaks, and forest stands higher in the landscape burned more severely than those at lower elevation as fires moved uphill, building momentum.

"No one says beetle-killed forests won't burn," says Turner. "The data set looks at whether they burn with different severity compared to unattacked forests burning under similar conditions."

The team was also interested in whether beetle outbreaks slowed the recovery of the forests after fires. Lodgepole pines are adapted to fire, containing two types of seed-carrying cones: those that release seeds as soon as they mature and those that require fire to open, blanketing the forest floor with potential new life following a blaze.

By counting the number of post-fire tree seedlings in their plots, the researchers found very little beetle-related impact. Tree seedlings were most numerous where more of the fire-killed trees bore the fire-adapted, or serotinous, cones. Beetle-killed trees likely contributed to post-fire seedling establishment, too, as their seeds remain viable in cones if they are not consumed in fire. Only high-reaching char from tall flames reduced the number of seed-spreading cones.

The scientists emphasize the results may differ in other forest types or with different lengths of time between beetle outbreaks and fire.

"These are both natural disturbances, fire and beetle outbreaks," says Turner. "It's not surprising the ecosystem has these mechanisms to be resilient. What we as people see as catastrophes are not always catastrophes to the ecosystem."

###

The study was funded by Joint Fire Science Program Grants and the National Park Service/George Melendez Wright Climate Change Fellowship.

— Kelly April Tyrrell, ktyrrell2@wisc.edu, 608-262-9772

Monica Turner | Eurek Alert!
Further information:
http://www.wisc.edu/

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Innovative genetic tests for children with developmental disorders and epilepsy
11.07.2018 | Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

nachricht Oxygen loss in the coastal Baltic Sea is “unprecedentedly severe”
05.07.2018 | European Geosciences Union

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Future electronic components to be printed like newspapers

A new manufacturing technique uses a process similar to newspaper printing to form smoother and more flexible metals for making ultrafast electronic devices.

The low-cost process, developed by Purdue University researchers, combines tools already used in industry for manufacturing metals on a large scale, but uses...

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

A smart safe rechargeable zinc ion battery based on sol-gel transition electrolytes

20.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Reversing cause and effect is no trouble for quantum computers

20.07.2018 | Information Technology

Princeton-UPenn research team finds physics treasure hidden in a wallpaper pattern

20.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>