2012-11-25

Summertime climate response to mountain pine beetle disturbance in British Columbia

The present mountain pine beetle infestation in forests in British Columbia ranks among the largest ecological disturbances recorded in Canada so far. These recent outbreaks are thought to have been favoured by large-scale climatic shifts, and may foreshadow outbreaks of a similar magnitude in North American forests over the coming decades. The associated forest dieback could result in substantial shifts in evapotranspiration and albedo, thereby altering the local surface energy balance, and in turn regional temperature and climate. Here we quantify the impact of the Canadian pine beetle disturbance on the local summertime surface energy budget, using measurements of evapotranspiration, albedo and surface temperature, obtained primarily through remote sensing. We show that over the 170,000 km2 of affected forest, the typical decrease in summertime evapotranspiration is 19%. Changes to the absorbed short-wave flux are negligible, in comparison. As a result, outgoing sensible and radiative heat fluxes increased by 8% and 1%, respectively, corresponding to a typical increase in surface temperature of 1 °C. These changes are comparable to those observed for other types of disturbance, such as wildfire, and may have secondary consequences for climate, including modifications to circulation, cloud cover and precipitation.