- Politics and Social Issues
How The 2011 British Columbia Fire Could Kill 100 Million People
It would at first seem impossible in an age of North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons, widespread economic collapse, and ever-heightening global tensions that the single greatest threat to the population of the North American continent would be posed by a beetle the size of a grain of rice.
Yet the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), a tiny little bug which likes to bore into the sides of pine trees and literally suck the life out of them in as little as two weeks, is definitely the greatest current threat to North American populations.
How can a tiny little bug kill 100 million people? No, not by direct infestation or any other way one might believe, but in triggering an insidious and unstoppable series of devastating ecological events.
Mountain pine beetles primarily attack the Ponderosa Pine, Scots Pine, Lodgepole Pine, and Limber Pine, killing them by boring a hole through the bark and into the phloem layer, which is the living tissue of the tree. The beetles feed on the sucrose generated by the tree and lay their eggs in the vascular system carrying the nutrients. Female beetles begin the attacks on the trees and produce pheromones to attract a vast number of additional beetles to result in a mass attack.
In about two weeks the pines are mortally damaged as the phloem layer is injured to the degree that the flow of water and nutrients to the tree is cut off and the trees starve to death.
The destruction can be easily seen from aerial photographs as previously green trees have died and become reddish-gray.
Mountain pine beetles love warmth and hate cold, thus particularly long and hot summers can lead to the beetle population increasing exponentially, which leads to the deforestation of enormous areas.
Currently 60% of the entire area of British Columbia consists of mountain pine beetle killed trees, and this infestation spreads by the day. This unprecedented destruction is expected to reach 80% soon.
To put this into perspective, the area covered by dead trees in British Columbia is now approximately the size of the entire states of California and New York combined!
No effective way to kill the mountain pine beetle exists. The beetle can only be burned out or frozen out. Given the extent of the infestation and the presence of the beetle in virtually all the forests surrounding cities and towns that are home to millions of people, it is not possible to just turn all those forests into cinders in controlled burns conducted by Forestry personnel.
The beetle population has been kept in check in the past by cold winters. Although they produce a natural anti-freeze solution in their bodies, beetles cannot survive temperatures down below -40 F (-40 C) for an entire night, or sustained temperatures of -25 F (-32 C) for several days in a row.
These temperatures were fairly common in the rigid winters of the British Columbia Interior up until a few years ago. Climate change has warmed the winters in the region to the point where the critical thresholds to kill off the beetles are not consistently reached, and thus the population of the insects is allowed to grow unchecked.
The British Columbia climate is strongly affected by the El Nino and La Nina Pacific Ocean water temperature oscillations. A good rule of thumb is that El Nino brings dry, warm weather, and La Nina provides cold and high precipitation to the province.
During the winters of 2008 and 2009, British Columbia had been under the influence of La Nina, creating colder winters than usual, and this has not slowed down the spread of the mountain pine beetle as the cold was just short of the critical threshold in much of the province.
The situation that may likely present itself in the upcoming months is one that might provide a "Perfect Storm" for unprecedented ecological devastation.
If the forecasts are correct, the summer of 2011 will be much hotter than usual. Temperatures through late May and early June in the Thompson - Okanagan region of the British Columbia Interior have already exceeded seasonal averages by as much as 18 F (10 C), and the 14 day trend until the end of June shows that this heat will continue undimished. Daytime highs have already reached well over 90 F (32 C) and this extremely unseasonable hot, dry weather shows no sign of letting up. The southern Okanagan town of Osoyoos has already seen 95 F (35 C) temperatures and it's still Spring! Considering that this region regularly sees summer temperatures well in excess of 100 F (38 C), this season could certainly be one for even more massive mountain pine beetle spread.
Whatever one might think about dead pine trees and their effect on the ecosystem and the collapsing Canadian forest industry, the most important factor is that dead trees are dry trees, and dry trees burn: Fast.
As I write this, there are over 80 square miles (20,000 hectares) aflame in British Columbia, primarily in two massive fires: The one at Tyaughton Lake, 40 miles (65 km) west of Lillooet is barely 50% contained and continues to spread, while the fire east of Smith River and the Liard River Junction along Highway 97 is effectively not contained at all.
The "Perfect Storm" scenario would call for a subsequent winter with above seasonal temperatures where the temperatures do not fall below -40 F (-40 C) for an entire night, or the sustained temperatures of -25 F (-32 C) for several days in a row are not reached: this is extremely likely if not outright certain given the El Nino dynamical models at this time.
By next summer, the British Columbia forests which cover almost every square mile of the entire province would be tinder dry and massively devastated by mountain pine beetle attacks. It is certainly conceivable that by August 2011, 70% or more of all of British Columbia would consist of dry, dead trees.
A lightning strike, a neglected campfire, or even just a tossed cigarette could begin the fires burning and they might soon reach a critical mass where they can no longer be contained and they would start combining with each other, reaching hundreds and then thousands of square miles. Not only is there not enough firefighter personnel available in all of North America that is trained to confront fires of this magnitude, but there is not enough equipment such as water bombers to handle fires on this massive a scale. All that can be done is to evacuate and pray for a huge rainstorm.
What happens next exists so far only in abstract computer models. The firestorm begins to feed on itself as temperatures reach levels far above any previously known forest fires. The massive heat and smoke set up vertical convection currents which fuel the fire with even more oxygen until the majority of British Columbia is aflame. These convection currents are so strong and active over such a huge area that they actually steer the jetstream away and to the north, thus redirecting any low pressure systems that could bring much needed rain up into the Yukon and away from the fire itself.
This inconceivable fire not only totally destroys the cities of Prince George, Kamloops, Kelowna and the entire Interior of British Columbia, but the effects of the fire start to spread across the continent, given the prevailing summer winds which blow towards the east and south east.
Although the fire itself does not spread much beyond provincial borders, the amount of smoke and ash which shot high up into the atmosphere by the massive vertical convection currents blacken the sky as far east as Montreal and as far south as Tulsa. These fires continue right through October when more frequent rains heading in from the Pacific finally overcome the inferno and begin to douse it, although it still glows in embers right through December.
By autumn, the area affected by the gargantuan smoke cloud which has blocked the sun for months and deposited a layer of ash which in some areas is several feet thick, experiences total ecological collapse. The lack of sunshine and the layer of ash halts photosynthetic processes in most of the huge region which takes up most of Canada and the northern United States, breaking down the food chain. Insects, birds, mammals, and then people starve: a scenario not too different from the "nuclear winter" scenario that is believed to have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Although many more areas are affected, the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North & South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario are within the Ecological Collapse Zone, thus become uninhabitable. There is no evacuation plan and no possible way to save the majority of the people who live in these areas and thus most will die: as many as 100 million.
This is not just a pie in the sky theoretical scenario: It is happening right now in British Columbia and all signs from the researchers at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environment Canada indicate that El Nino is returning within weeks and might be extraordinarily powerful, setting up a situation where these potential massive forest fires become indisputable.
The forest fire that consumes most of British Columbia could very well happen, and it is quite likely to occur by next summer. The ecological devastation it would cause is literally unthinkable. Yet we do have to think about it now if we have any chance of evading the overwhelming destruction that will be wrought by this little bug the size of a grain of rice.