Photo via Eggs&Beer; via Flickr Creative Commons
Mountain pine beetles have been a problem for many years, especially the last decade. Warming temperatures have helped the destructive insect move into new territories. Their booming numbers and rapid spread have meant death for large patches of forests. Now NASA satellites have been able to detest these masses of forests killed off by the beetles and researchers have looked at how the damage done by the beetles is linked to forest fires -- or as NASA states, "As the dog days of summer hit full force, some say the pine beetles have transformed healthy forest into a dry tinderbox primed for wildfire." However, the research shows that such a conclusion might not actually be the case.
According to NASA, researchers from University of Wisconsin looked at Landsat data pulled from satellites to build up maps of the most impacted forests, maps that include light wavelengths invisible to the human eye. Then, using infrared technology that shows wavelengths that healthy plants reflect, the researchers pin-pointed trees that were killed off and confirmed that they were indeed killed by pine beetles rather than anything else. And lastly, the researchers compared maps of forests killed off by beetles with maps of recent fires.
And it appears that large fires aren't more likely with trees killed by pine beetles.
The reasons the researchers provide is that the flammable oils in pine needles break down after the trees die, which means they are not more likely than green trees to catch fire. Also, beetle-infested trees loose their needles as they die, which break down quickly on the forest floor. That means logs without kindling, which is a tough way to start a fire.
Photo via krossbow via Flickr Creative Commons
"I think it's important for people not to assume that there are relationships for certain types of features on the landscape," [one researcher] says. "It's easy to think, 'It's more damaged so more likely to burn.' That's why it's important to ask questions and not take everything as gospel truth, but go out and see if what we think is happening in our mind is really happening on the ground."
This might be good news for forests to some extent, but fires are important for forest regeneration. And with climate change helping pine beetles to reproduce far more quickly than historically possible and spread to new areas, regenerating forests is of prime importance. Especially after news of a report two years ago that points out how dead forests are a carbon source rather than a carbon sink, exacerbating the problem of warming temperatures.
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More on the Mountain Pine Beetle
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