The Heat Is Online

Beetle Infestation Threatens Swedish Forestry Industry

Global warming blamed for Swedish beetle-infestation

 

International Herald Tribune, May 2, 2007

 

VRETA KLOSTER, Sweden: For Goran Samuelsson, the proud owner of 70 hectares of majestic spruce trees here in southeastern Sweden, the forest is no place for fairy tales or fauns. It is his economic security - "a bank where you don't have to bow to get what you need," as he puts it.

 

But recently, due to a set of events that many experts see as caused by global warming, Samuelsson has started seeing a part of his prized forest in a much darker light. He now calls it "hell."

 

"It is sad," he said as he stood among about 50 dead or dying trees, pointing out the clearing where he, while hunting for moose last November, saw the first three trees with red and dry tops. They proved to be the unmistakable signs of attacks by Samuelsson's tiny new nemesis, the European spruce bark beetle.

 

"I'm not really worried about these," he said, indicating the dead 70-year-old trees with their bark peeling, exposing the characteristic tree-shaped egg galleries of the insects. "I'm worried about what will happen if we fail to stop the beetles."

 

Samuelsson, a blunt 62-year-old dairy farmer, is not alone in this fear. Sweden is 60-percent-covered by forests, and in 2005 timber and paper products accounted for 12 percent of the country's total exports, for a value of 114 billion kronor, or $17 billion.

 

For many years, it has been an immensely profitable business, both for the forest owners and for the big paper and timber producers, and in recent decades more and more land, especially in southern Sweden, has been claimed by planted spruce.

 

But now some see nature, in the shape of the five-millimeter, or 1/5-inch, hairy bark beetle, as striking back - induced by climate change.

"We've set these beetles a giant smorgasbord, so it's not strange they're coming," said Christel Gustafsson, a forest ecologist active in the Green Party, and a longtime critic of the intense type of single-breed forestry most common in Sweden. "Our form of forestry simply isn't adapted to the climate changing."

 

The beetle has caused havoc in Central Europe's mountainous spruce forests for centuries, drilling through the spruces' bark, where the insects lay their eggs, eventually killing the tree. It takes about 6,000 beetles to kill a 25-meter, or 80-foot, spruce.

 

Until now, the beetle has never been a big problem in Northern Europe, mainly because long and cold winters kept their numbers down. But for this year and the next, experts are predicting an explosion in the number of beetles, causing the death of up to 60 million cubic meters, or 2.1 billion cubic feet, of trees - almost two-thirds of the yearly regeneration of Sweden's forests.

 

"This is the worst situation we've ever seen here in Sweden," said Bo Langstrom, a professor of entomology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. "Usually, the beetle only produces one brood per year here in Sweden. But last year, for the first time, it produced two."

 

"If this continues, we will have much more serious damage than ever before," he said.

 

Climate change is a likely culprit, as manifested in the frequency and intensity of storms. The problems began when one of the biggest storms in modern times hit southern Sweden in January 2005, felling 75 million cubic meters of trees, mainly planted spruce. Many experts believe that the way that trees have been planted and harvested - on formerly open fields, and next to big clear-cuttings - have made them vulnerable to strong winds.

 

The felled trees provided the perfect breeding ground for the bark beetles, and when the storm was followed by the longest and warmest summer on record in 2006, the beetles were given the chance to greatly increase their numbers. Then another big storm hit southern Sweden this January, and spring arrived early, letting the beetle start breeding quickly.

 

"Now we just have to pray for a cold and short summer," said Mattias Sparf, a forest consultant with the Swedish Forest Agency.

The same week in April when the Swedish beetles awoke from their winter slumber and began searching for fresh trees to breed in, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report stating that increased insect outbreaks affecting forestry were "virtually certain."

 

It remains to be seen whether countermeasures like poison traps and clearing of felled trees can contain the outbreak. But some voices are calling for changes in the forestry industry.

 

Gustafsson, the ecologist and politician, says it is high time to plant mixed forests, with deciduous trees, such as oak and birch, mixed in with the evergreens.

 

But for Samuelsson, the farmer whose forest has been stricken, business comes first: The price for spruce is higher than it has been in many decades, so despite his worries, spruce is what he plans to plant once the dead trees are cut down.

 

"Whichever way you look at it, there is such a thing called the market," he said. "And the market rules."