The mountain pine beetle has historically been found in the forests of the west coast of North America where it has played an important role in maintaining diversity in forest ecosystem by taking out mature lodgepole pines, and opening up the canopy for the growth of younger trees.
In the past, the population of the beetles have been kept in check, partially by the fact that the lodgepole pine has some resistance to the beetle, but mostly due to climate, as cold winters would keep the beetle's population in check. However, over the last few decades, the average temperature in the British Columbia interior has risen 1.5 degrees. This has resulted in milder winters, and as a result the beetle population has exploded. The mountain pine beetle has destroyed over 18 million hectares of lodgepole pine forest in British Columbia alone, but it is not stopping there.
The beetles have now crossed over the Rocky Mountains into Alberta, something that has long been feared by scientists and the forestry industry. By crossing into Alberta, the mountain pine beetle has gained access to the Boreal Forest, a vast ecosystem stretching across the width of North America. One of the most commercially important species in the Boreal forest is the jack pine, a close relative of the lodgepole pine, which is used in the pulp and paper industry. One of the differences between the two species is that jack pine lacks the lodgepole pine's resistance to the mountain pine beetle, so it is even more vulnerable to the outbreak.
The implications of the mountain pine beetle spreading into the Boreal forest are enormous. Firstly, the jack pine plays an important role in secondary succession in the Boreal forest. The cones of the jack pine only open in response to high heat, so it is one of the first tree species to return after a fire.
The loss of the jack pine would also be the death knell for the endangered Kirtland's warbler, a species of bird that only nests in young jack pine stands.
What's more, the death of all these trees in British Columbia and beyond is creating a large carbon source in an area that should be a carbon sink, which will in turn, only contributes to the global warming which caused this whole problem in the first place.