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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 17:30 EDT

The Carbon Footprint Of Beetle Infestations

August 4, 2009

An infestation of beetles in forests across North America has some regulators concerned over the increasing carbon footprint their devastation could leave behind.

So far, the infestation has killed off millions of acres of pine forests in the US and Canada, and millions of spruce trees could be the next to go.

“The gravity of the situation is very real,” Rolf Skar, of Greenpeace, told Reuters.

To date, the beetle swarms have resulted in a loss of billions of dollars in the timber industry as well as diminished property values.

A climate bill passed by the House showed that the infestation could kill off millions of spruce trees, thus making it harder to meet a 17 percent reduction of carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.

The pine and spruce forests are natural storage facilities for carbon emissions, but as the beetles increase their territory, those trees could be lost, resulting in a massive carbon footprint. Healthy forests stand as a carbon sink, but when they die off, they emit the stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

“Pine beetle infestations are cyclical in nature and have been occurring for thousands of years but what is making things worse now is the effects of global warming,” said Skar.

“If you don’t have the real cold extremes to kill off the larvae under the bark you are going to have extreme infestation events,” he added.

Scientists in the Medicine Bow National Forest of Wyoming are studying how the beetle infestation could impact carbon emissions in the US.

Mike Ryan, of the U.S. Forest Service, said scientists are gathering carbon measurements every half hour.

He told Reuters that the net carbon storage in Medicine Bow is about half of what it was three or four years ago.

Additionally, he said the forest could actually become a contributor of carbon emissions within the next three to four years.

“Most forests will recover the carbon they lose but if the next 50 to 100 years is important we may not have that much time. It’s setting back carbon storage efforts,” said Ryan.

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