(May 31, 2007)

Belize forest ravaged by beetles brought on by climate change

By Mica Rosenberg
From Reuters

MOUNTAIN PINE RIDGE FOREST, Belize (Reuters) - A once-majestic pine forest in Belize is struggling to recover from a devastating plague of beetles that scientists say was caused by climate change.

Tiny pine beetles destroyed up to 80 percent, or close to 70,000 acres, of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest near Belize's border with Guatemala when trees stressed by higher temperatures and years of water shortages could not defend themselves.

Efforts to replant were set back by a fierce forest fire two weeks ago that wiped out close to 20,000 acres (8,090 hectares) of this natural reserve, which is made up of Caribbean pines and home to small foxes, deer and birds.

"For someone like me who has worked and lived in this forest my whole life, there is nothing sadder than this," said Earl Green, a forestry official who saw the beetles from the Dendroctonus family ravage the forest several years ago.

Belizean climate change scientist Kenrick Leslie said droughts caused by global warming weakened the trees, leaving them vulnerable to beetle attacks, and that it was a warning of what can happen to other forests around the world.

"Now we have a monitoring system created by nature to show what you can expect," he told a global warming conference in this small Central American country earlier this week. "It can only get worse."

Rising global temperatures, which most scientists say are caused by human use of fossil fuels, are held responsible for an array of changing climate patterns including increased floods and drought or stronger and more frequent hurricanes.

The beetles in Belize bored their way through a thick layer of bark to lay thousands of eggs inside each affected tree. The hatched larvae fed off the sap.

Healthy pines can fend off the attacks by secreting a substance that plugs the bore holes and drowns the beetles but the trees in Belize were weakened by three to four years of unusual drought.

"The tree is just like the human body. You have naturally occurring viruses and bacteria in your system but when your immune system is weakened you get sick," Green said.

The blight was first noticed in 1999 and reached its peak in 2003. Experts say the beetle devastation in Belize is mirrored in forests further north.

Colorado is in the midst of a pine beetle infestation that has destroyed close to half of the state's lodgepole pines.

Higher temperatures are also blamed for speeding up the rate of reproduction for other forest pests like the spruce bark beetle. Those beetles destroyed 2.3 million acres of trees in Alaska's Kenai Peninsula in 1998, the U.S. Forest Service says.

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