Colorado is refreshing. Having spent the last year-and-a-half in south Louisiana, I had
forgotten the simple joys of a refinery-free landscape, bike lanes, and vegetarian diners. Driving through (and over) the Rocky Mountains is an experience best not summed in words (they’d never do it justice). I’ve never seen, much less touched, snow in June.

But my trip to the AGU Chapman Conference quickly thrust itself into new territory when I reached an area afflicted with a strange sort of contaminate lurking in the woods: the Mountain Pine Beetle. Sure, it’s not as sexy as an EF-5 tornado or a “superstorm” ravaging the east coast – but it’s just as (if not more) destructive.

Remember how in the Bible God sent a plague of locusts just before total darkness as the final nail in Egypt’s spiritual coffin? In fact, four of the ten plagues of Egypt were bugs (lice and nats, flies, pestilence, and locusts).

This bug has eaten away so much of Colorado’s beautiful forests that finding alive trees among the pale death scarring the landscape was like the “Where’s Waldo” of a once pristine preserve. The mountain pine beetle has affected more than 900 miles of trails, 3,200 miles of roads and 21,000 acres of developed recreation sites over 3,600,000 acres in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming; other outbreaks encompass the Black Hills of South Dakota and extend as far south as Arizona.

So what does this have to do with climate change? Everything. From Arizona to British Columbia, scientists are observing the worst MPB outbreak to date. High elevations and regular (cold) springs usually keep the bug in check. But with early spring and warmer temperatures into higher altitudes, the bugs are moving northward into untouched forest – forest unequipped to handle such an outbreak.

That’s not even the worst part.

Forests are critical in absorbing the high doses of carbon dioxide we dump into the air each day. They suck it up and turn it into nice, hard pine wood. The massive die-off of forests across the western U.S. and into Canada means less carbon dioxide absorbed, and more released as trees begin to decay.  Meaning an even warmer planet, which in turn allows the bugs to keep moving north and killing more trees, and then warming us more, and son on… A cycle of hell.

When I first heard that this conference was going to be held on a ranch in the middle of Nowhere, Colorado (with no television or cable, I might add), I thought… hmm. That’s an off choice. Why not go to a place where climate change manifests itself unprohibitively, like, say, south Louisiana? Then again, I don’t know as much about Colorado’s experiences with climate change as I do the deep south’s. Now I know. And it’s bad. A cruel reminder that wind and weather aren’t the only forces threatening our lands and its people.

To read more about the Mountain Pine Beetle, click here.