Award-winning photojournalist Peter Essick has been traveling the globe documenting environmental issues for the past two decades. He's also a frequent contributor to National Geographic, having shot more than 40 stories for the publication in the past 25 years. Last April, Peter was commissioned by the magazine to photograph a feature story about a pine beetle outbreak that has destroyed more than 60 million acres of forest from New Mexico to British Columbia. Pine beetles don't typically exhibit this type of remarkable population growth. So what's causing the crisis?
The author Hillary Rosner writes, "Rising temperatures and drought have stressed trees, leaving them unable to fight an invasion. Warmer weather also has boosted the beetles’ population and greatly expanded their range. They’re flourishing farther north and at higher elevations, invading pine trees, such as jack pine and whitebark, that had rarely seen them until a few years ago. Because these trees aren’t as good at defending themselves, a smaller band of beetles can overwhelm them. Three-quarters of the mature whitebark pines in Yellowstone National Park are now dead—a blow to grizzly bears, which eat the seeds in autumn, and to Clark’s nutcrackers, which cache the seeds for winter."
The outbreak originated in the central region of British Columbia and moved through the mountain American Western states of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. Recently, the most active outbreak in the USA occurred in South Dakota. The beetles have also spread across the Rocky Mountains to Alberta during two large storms.
Essick visited all of these regions to photograph the story. In the Q&A below, we talk to him about the experience.
How exactly does the mountain pine beetle kill the forest?
It attacks the inner bark or phloem that feeds the tree. First, a female beetle bores through the bark, and if she likes the tree she sends out a scent signal for other beetles to come to the tree. Often hundreds of beetles will then bore into the tree within a 24 hour period. The tree puts out sap to try to stop the beetles boring, but usually the beetles can overcome the tree's defenses. The beetles then begin to chew tunnels through the inner bark where the females each lay about 50 eggs. The eggs then turn to larvae within a week and stay inside the tree throughout winter. If it gets really cold the larvae will die, but because it has been warmer in the winter due to climate change, more larvae are surviving. In early summer, the larvae hatch and then fly to another tree repeating the cycle. In recent warmer years, as many as 10 beetles have been coming out of the tree for each one that entered. That is why there are now outbreaks of beetles that can fill entire forests.
How have the locals reacted?
The beetle is a native species and has always been a part of the forest, but now it is causing severe damage to whole forests so the locals don't like it at all. Some have made a living out of salvage logging and carving the beetle kill wood, but overall it is bad for local economies based on logging or recreation.
In the town of Custer, South Dakota, some locals tried to think of something positive they could do for the community regarding the beetle. They thought of the burning man and came up with the idea to do the burning beetle to draw the community together and hopefully over the long run create a tourist draw.
What attempts have been made to manage the beetle population?
Nothing to date has been successful in controlling the outbreaks. Pheromone patches have been nailed to trees to fool the beetles, but have had limited success. There is an insecticide that can be sprayed on an individual tree, but the cost is about $50/tree for one year of protection. It also kills all other insects in the tree as well. In Alberta, they have been identifying newly attacked trees by helicopter and then going back in the winter and cutting down the trees and burning then hoping to stop or slow down the outbreak. This is very expensive and may or may not work in the long run.
What was it like traveling around the forest while tracking the beetles? What did you find most challenging about documenting this story?
I did a lot of driving through the western states looking for areas to photograph. The scientists are always interesting to talk to about their research.
The one challenge that was different about this story was doing macro photography of the beetles. The beetle is about the size of a grain of rice, so the photographer needs to use a special lens that can go to 3X to 4X life size to get a full frame photo of the beetle in its environment.
See a complete lightbox with all of the images from this story here.View all of Peter's work available for purchase through Aurora here.