Photo: J Mitton

Summer 2006:  Peter Jackson, a meteorologist in Prince George B.C., couldn't believe what he was seeing on his radar screen.  It was like a rainstorm, but thicker, and it was crossing east over the Rocky Mountains. It looked a little like insect swarms, except insects had never been seen at such high altitudes before.  Farmers on the eastern slope of the Rockies described huge clouds of insects. They could hear them pinging off their steel roofs. The swarms were so dense they gummed up the windshield wipers on the farmers' vehicles.

This was this first attack of the Mountain Pine Beetle east of the Rocky Mountains… the year when the unthinkable actually happened: carried along by the prevailing winds, trillions of Mountain Pine Beetles crossed the Rocky Mountains from BC into Alberta. Now, the great Northern Boreal Forest, one of the world's richest ecosystems and one of its greatest carbon sinks, was face to face with a grave threat - a plague of insects, each the size of a grain of rice.


A creature the size of a grain of rice is moving eastwards, destroying Canada's forests
Photo: J Mitton

In British Columbia, the damage done by this hungry little creature was already well known. In the interior of B.C. people called it 'The Lodgepole Tsunami.' In a period of less than 10 years, swarms of Mountain Pine Beetles ate their way through 18 million hectares of Lodgepole Pine forest, an area the size of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick combined. The ecological and economic cost has been staggering.

But the Mountain Pine Beetle is NOT an invasive species.  It has lived with and co-evolved with the Lodgepole Pine for millennia. Like natural forest fires, the pine beetle is a critical actor in the natural cycle of forest regeneration. Every 25 years or so, in a period of warm winters and warm, dry summers, the beetle's population would spike. Then they would attack, taking out over-mature trees, thus thinning the canopy to make way for younger tree growth. These outbreaks would last a year or two, then the normal weather patterns would prevail and an early cold snap or a stretch of cold winter weather would bring the population back under control.


Signs of the beetle devastation in British Columbia
Photo: J Mitton

But, in this outbreak, the beetle population in BC grew massively for a decade, and devastated the province's forests. So what was it that unleashed this terrible force of nature?  The culprit is climate change.  In its natural range, there is no longer the cold weather brake that has kept the Beetle's population under control. Now that the population has exploded, there's no telling where it will stop. For the first time, the eastward march across Canada of this seemingly unstoppable beetle invasion is now perceived as inevitable, especially since the beetle has no natural enemies, nor has man found any way to kill it. 

The pine dominant Northern Boreal Forest, stretching all the way to the Atlantic, is now under threat, with ominous ramifications for our travel and tourism, as well as our forestry industries. Without our pine forests, long a symbol of the Canadian landscape and identity, the result will be a Canada we no longer recognize.

The Beetles are Coming takes the viewer on a rich, up close and personal journey into the world of the Mountain Pine Beetle, and uncovers the science behind this ecological disaster. The story of this remarkable little creature the size of a grain of rice that will destroy the pine forests of North America epitomizes the cause and effect of how climate change can upset the balance of nature with unpredictable, unimaginable, devastating results.

Produced and directed by David York for 52 Media Inc. with CBC-TV.

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