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Global warming is causing bark beetles to kill more of the Southwest’s forests

Bark Beetle
Katja Schulz (@treegrow) via Flickr
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Drought adds fuel to the Southwest’s massive wildfires by killing off swaths of forests. That’s been exacerbated over the last decade by bark beetles that attack and kill live trees. A new study shows climate change is accelerating these processes, causing more trees to die faster.

Bark beetles are tiny black or brown cylindrical bugs that reproduce under the bark of trees and there’s about 600 different species.

They wreak havoc in our forests here in the Southwest and New Mexico and cause large amounts of trees to die –– particularly the Ponderosa Pine.

It's fast as well. On average, it takes bark beetles 2-4 weeks to fully kill a host tree.

Now, a new study suggests that global warming has amped up the rate at which these beetles kill our forests by more than 30% and that has Los Alamos National Lab researcher Chonggang Xu warning fire managers that we should think more broadly when prescribing burns in our forests.

“I think it’s an important angle from the forest management perspective when you consider both [prescribed] fire AND insects together, rather than just the fire,” Xu said.

The research found that, on average, fewer of the insect's larvae are dying during winter months because of a warming climate, which allows more bark beetles to prey upon trees during a time when they are most vulnerable.

Xu also said that beyond burning, forest managers need to diversify forests by retaining trees of different ages and species to prevent beetles from killing off vegetation ––and, in the process, reducing the risks of wildfire.

Dying trees also release more carbon, making climate change worse, but keeping trees alive allows them to continue their vital role of capturing that carbon.

Bryce Dix is our new local host for NPR's Morning Edition.