All posts by Aurora Photos

Photographer Q&A: Peter Essick Documents the Pine Beetle Epidemic for National Geographic

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.

Helicopter surveying of red trees by the Alberta Government near Grande Prairie a part of a mountain pine beetle control program. The red trees are all marked on GPS and in the crews go back in November and mark a 50 meter circle around infested trees and find all other trees infestested. Then in the winter crews go back and cut down all those trees and burn them.

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.

Colorado State University professor and beetle researcher Dan West collects mountain pine beetles from a ponderosa pine that was being attacked in a forest in the Front Range west of Ft. Collins.

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.

Burning of Pine Beetle Effigy, Custer, South Dakota. the Ponderosa Pine trees of the Black Hills have been hit hard by the pine beetle. A local woodworker with the help of other in the community constructed a 26-foot long wooden pine beetle out of beetle kill wood and plywood reinforcement. It was loaded with fuel and candle fuses and set on fire

Experimental Fire in Beetlekill Forest, near Vandrhoof, Canada. A group from the Canadian Ministry of Forests is doing a test to see how fire reacts in beetlekill forest. They have several blocks and have firefighters surrounding the blocks before they are set on fire. The trees are mostly in the gray stage so there is a lot od down woody debris and fallen trees low, but no needles on the dead trees.

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.

Pine beetle flying on a leash in the lab of Maya Evenden at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Research is being done here to see how far mountain pine beetles can fly. They have found the average to be about 6km and one flew 24 km.

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.

Red Bellied Checkered beetle (Enoclerus sphegeus) preying on a mountain pine beetle.

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

On The Road With Joel Addams

Joel Addams is an adventure photographer who doesn’t shoot hardcore action, a travel photographer who gets up close and personal to his subjects. He’s an editorial and commercial photographer, a professor and a student, a curator and an artist. He is a multi-talented creator of imagery that uses emotion and mood to focus on details, like stones on a cairn, or on a more grand scale, like the magnitude of a mountain. His dream-like photos are imbued with a sense of calm and stillness, the moments influenced by his cinematography sentiments.

You can see more of his outdoor, lifestyle and travel images here.

The Dolomites of Cinque Torri are seen outside a dining area of a rifugio.

Aurora Photos: Can you speak to the premise behind your course at the University of Utah, “Photography as Communication, Art and Catalyst”, and the fascination with the art of observing vs. seeing?

Joel Addams: I was given a unique opportunity to teach in the Honors College at the University of Utah. I taught in a fashion course that looked at photography in the 20th century as much more than pictures: as a method for social and political change, and a mode of fashion styling and propagation, as a personal expression. We looked at war photography, fashion photography, art photography, commercial photography, and everything in between. It was interesting for me to delve deeper into those areas. I probably learned more than the students, to be honest. It’s amazing how photography is such a part of the historical record, but more than that, is a mode of change as well.

Two Nepali couples view Kathmandu from Swyambu Temple

[Au]: In 2014 you released the “Before I Burn” documentary about cornea extraction in Nepal. What brought you to this subject matter? How has being a still photographer informed your abilities as a filmmaker?

JA: I was in Nepal in 2006 when I was doing ophthalmology research at the Tilganga Eye Institute in graduate school. I was taken to the Pashupatinath Temple across the road to see the cremations and how the technicians worked. For “developed” countries, we are not used to the processes around death, but in Nepal and many other countries, the families prepare their relatives after they die, transport them to the temple for cremation, and perform most of the rites around the funeral. I was fascinated by the process around this, the visually interesting process and closeness of the family to their deceased loved ones. Then of course, following the corneas (just the thin clear outer portion of the eye) into surgeries and seeing the positive results was fascinating. I shot around this subject matter with the access of the hospital, and then wanted to film the process later on, starting a documentary in 2010 and finishing in 2013. Still photography was an excellent way to learn techniques of cinematography and the difficult process of learning how to tell a story visually. Filmmaking involves so much more to think about for documentary work with each portion of filmmaking its own world. Now I try to involve as many professionals as possible in my filmmaking.

A smartphone is held in the hands of a Buddhist monk in Nepal.

[Au]: It appears you have a deep respect and appreciation for all concentrations of art, even curating your own personal collection. What do you look for when purchasing a new piece? How do these pieces mesh with your own work?

JA: I’ve met a lot of photographers and filmmakers who look to other media for inspiration. Writing, music, film, painting, sculpture are very inspirational to me. Several good friends of mine, Zachary Proctor, Lane Bennion, CJ Hales, are all professional painters and have really been inspirational in terms of career, artistic understanding, and new ways of seeing. I would say their friendships have been invaluable to photography and filmmaking for me. I collect paintings for so many reasons. Maybe I love it because it has a quality that is so different from a photograph. I don’t choose paintings: they choose me! I don’t have specific things I look for. I’m not sure I know how my tastes in paintings mesh with my own work, though I think over the years, we have sometimes influenced each other.

The Grandview Overlook in Canyonlands National Park is a vast sea of desert.

[Au]:  What ignited your passion for the outdoors, and how has it broadened your creative perspective?

JA: My dad was brought up fishing the rivers around Pinedale, Wyoming and then he started backpacking the Wind Rivers – something that became rather sacred for my father. He never wanted to backpack anywhere else, actually. He started inviting me along around the age of ten, before we had any fancy outdoor clothing. We backpacked in jeans and t-shirts and external frame backpacks. I think we all enter photography from a love of something, and for so many of us, landscape photography is a beautiful entrance. Over the years, I have loved the exploration into other areas of photography, but will never pass up a good landscape. There is something really calm and fulfilling about being alone in the outdoors in good light. Don McCullin seems to have found a space in the landscape again after his many years of photographing war. It seems like a place we can all go to return to something.

A young woman wearing a winter hat holds a coffee mug outside.

[Au]:  Given your experience in both photography and educating others through workshops, what are some life lessons that you want to share with budding photographers?

JA: People starting to photograph seriously should look at as many photographs and photographers as possible early on. It seems important to explore all the avenues of photography; they’re so different. In addition, I worry sometimes when photographers seem guided by the concept of “what sells”. They may move away from images they really enjoy, but may take longer to establish a clientele from that particular style. The happiest and most successful photographers seem to be true to themselves and eventually find markets for their photography. I remember that I was scoffed at very early on for exhibiting a large portrait of a man in Nepal, being told by another photographer “that will never sell.” I’m glad I didn’t listen to him.

We’re also glad Joel didn’t listen! Otherwise, we wouldn’t have his fantastic outdoor, lifestyle and travel images on our site