Beetle infested pine trees contribute more to air pollution and haze over forests

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – The hordes of bark beetles that have bored their way through more than 6 billion trees in the Western United States and British Columbia since the 1990s do more than damage and kill stately pine, spruce and other trees. A new study finds that these pests can make trees release up to 20 times more of the organic substances that foster haze and air pollution in forested areas. It appears in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.                                                                 

Gannet Hallar, Kara Huff Hartz, and colleagues explain that Western North America is experiencing a population explosion of mountain pine beetles, a type of bark beetle that damages and kills pines and other trees. Hallar is an Assistant Research Professor and Director of the Desert Research Institute’s Storm Peak Laboratory in Steamboat Springs, Colo. The beetles bore into the bark of pine trees to lay eggs. Gases, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are released from the bore holes, which act as defense mechanisms against the beetles. VOCs, however, also contribute to the smog and haze that obscures views of natural landscapes in U.S. National Parks and other nature areas where tourists gather in the summertime. To determine exactly how beetle attacks affect the atmosphere, the researchers measured VOC levels in the air near healthy and infected pine trees.

They found that beetle-infested trees release up to 20 times more VOCs than healthy trees near the ground surface. The predominant type of VOC was a monoterpene called ß-phellandrene. The data suggest that the bark beetle epidemic in the Western U.S. could have led to higher monoterpene concentrations in the air that can contribute to haze, which can harm human health, reduce visibility and impact climate, say the researchers.

The authors acknowledge funding from the National Science Foundation.

“Effect of Bark Beetle Infestation on Secondary Organic Aerosol Precursor Emissions” can be found athttp://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es204205m.

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