Conifer Catastrophe: Friday Fractal LXXI

The following fractal is a tribute to our new overlords, Dendroctonus ponderosae.


Lindenmayer Trees and Fractal Brownian Motion

I wrote about the role of pine beetles in Colorado’s future last week. The conclusion of that piece: a slight rise in temperatures means a strong advantage for pine beetles, which will be able to decimate Colorado’s vast lodgepole pine forests, thus increasing fire danger and erosion, not to mention damaging our tourism. Well, our annual aerial survey of the forests was completed recently, and the news isn’t good:

The growth of the beetle epidemic affecting lodgepole pine forests last year was "unprecedented," said Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Rick Cables. The infestation has hit about 1.5 million acres in the state since the first outbreak in 1996, according to an aerial survey conducted last summer.

All mature lodgepole pine forests will be dead in Colorado within three to five years, said Susan Gray, a group leader for forest health management in the Rocky Mountain Region. "We’ll lose all the older, larger trees," she said.

The infestation kills entire hillsides of lodgepole pine trees and leaves behind rust-colored skeletons. The impacts are as simple as eliminating natural breaks that trees provide between campsites in national forests and causing an aesthetic blight for sightseers. Impacts could be as severe as eliminating cover that allows slopes to hold snow and allowing erosion that clouds water quality, officials said.

(Source: the Aspen Times)

It isn’t just our pines in danger, however. The aspen are also dying, while a new (to Colorado) invasive species, zebra mussels, were found last week in Lake Pueblo.

Sometimes I think keeping the world as we know it is as futile a task as finding simplicity in a fractal.

Fractal created by the author using ChaosPro.

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Where I used to live at the border of Clear Creek and Jefferson counties, we used to gather twice a year with chainsaws and diesel-solubilized pestcide to embark on pine beetle mitigation on the mountain ridge around our "neighborhood." We were pretty aggressive and even today I see our small swatch off I-70 being relatively unaffected. But with the latest reports, even our noble efforts are likely to be overcome as the invasion progresses.

Thanks for noting this issue - makes me sad about a place I continue to love so dearly.

Hmmm. I was wondering. If the beloved coniferous forests go away then something with survival value will replace them. Someday, our descendants will feel as close to the replacement forest as we do about the one we are accustomed to.

I observe that this replacement of one population by another has happened multiple times in the past. What we feel comfortable with is what has been extant for a very short time. There has never been any guarantee that the usual, normal, familiar expression of life has a life expectancy greater than the mean time between these events.

If our dear forests were to die and go away, and be replaced by "alien" plants (how can they be alien if they exist and thrive here, on Earth?) those who follow us will learn to love, admire and exploit them to at least the same degree as we do our familiar landscapes.

Imagine living in Colorado a few million years ago. Unrecognizable but still vibrant, alive, and full of food. Also very, very wet.

BTW, I check in every Friday because I have been fascinated by fractals since the mid eighties when I generated them on an IBM PC with an 8086 CPU. Took 12 to 18 hours to render the M set with 50 iterations at 320X240 resolution in 16 (count 'em, 16) colors. Boy howdy, look what we can do now!

The more things change, the more we take advantage of them.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 18 Jan 2008 #permalink


To connect and to care; or to be detached and clinical?

In recent years it's been very useful for me to learn about our ecology and our economy.

In recent years it's been very frightening to learn about our ecology and our economy.

Many economists like to talk about our beloved economy with clinical detachment. Business downturn is normal. Recession is normal. Those are just normal functions of our beloved economy.

But those normal functions are painful for the people who lose their jobs. Those normal functions are harsh and frightening for the families whose lives are connected to our beloved economy's normal functions. Clinically detached reassurance that change is a normal function probably doesn't impress people who care about the quality of their lives during the change.

Talking about ecology from a clinically detached perspective, that all will be normal in a million years, that's fine for whomever is around to care in a million years. Unfortunately the transition experience may be unpleasant, painful, or outright horrible for the 6.6 billion humans and myriad other species who are swept along in the experiment right now.

Most models are wrong, but some are useful. A clinically detached approach to ecology is useful. It offers a context to consider and to evaluate options. But we humans are a social species. We connect. Our normal function is to care about each other. When the ecology of our only home changes catastrophically, it's still our normal human function to connect and to care about the consequences.

Clinical detachment offers some value to me in evaluating information. But I find it a deeply unsatisfying approach to living my life. What works better for me is, the more things change, the more I care.

As humans I think we have to care and manage our environment.

In the UK all the countryside we love has been managed for hundreds of years (I can't recollect any original forest, except a very small part of the Caledonian forest and that has been stripped of its straight pines a long time ago).
The countryside beloved of the poets is man made, though so long ago I suspect most don't realise this.

We make the choice as to what to retain and keep, we are stewards of the land like it not.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

One major factor in the pine beetle epidemic in Colorado is the age of the forests. Colorado has had a century of fire-fighting efforts in forests that sometimes need fire to reseed and regenerate.

Because of the somewhat successful efforts to suppress fires, the forests in Colorado are denser and older than would be expected in unmanaged forests. Since density of trees and age of trees can promote pine beetle infestations, it appears that our century of fire-fighting has caught up with us.

Of course, with all of the now dead forests, look out for some dramatic fires over the next decade.