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In New Jersey pines, trouble arrives on six legs

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The southern pine beetle is marching northward, and scientists say winters are no longer cold enough to kill it.

New York Times | December 4, 2013

Damage from a southern pine beetle. Photo: Southern Forest Insect Work Conference Archive, Southern Forest Insect Work Conference, Bugwood.org

BLUE ANCHOR, N.J. — “Heads up!”

Deep in the woods, the whine of chain saws pierced the fall air, and Steve Garcia shouted a warning to fellow loggers as a 40-foot pitch pine crashed to the ground.

He was chopping down trees to save the forest as part of New Jersey’s effort to beat back an invasion of beetles.

In an infestation that scientists say is almost certainly a consequence of global warming, the southern pine beetle is spreading through New Jersey’s famous Pinelands.

It tried to do so many times in the past, but bitterly cold winters would always kill it off. Now, scientists say, the winters are no longer cold enough. The tiny insect, firmly entrenched, has already killed tens of thousands of acres of pines, and it is marching northward.

Scientists say it is a striking example of the way seemingly small climatic changes are disturbing the balance of nature. They see these changes as a warning of the costly impact that is likely to come with continued high emissions of greenhouse gases.

The disturbances are also raising profound questions about how to respond. Old battles about whether to leave nature alone or to manage it are being rejoined as landscapes come under stress.

The New Jersey situation resembles, on a smaller scale, the outbreak of mountain pine beetles that has ravaged tens of millions of acres of forest across the Western United States and Canada. That devastation, too, has been attributed to global warming — specifically, the disappearance of the bitterly cold winter nights that once kept the beetles in check.

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