Climate change to blame as bark beetles ravage central Europe's forests
- Experts say situation spinning out of control
- Large swathes of spruce forests destroyed
- Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Slovakia affected
- Forest owners suffer losses, timber prices drop
Hot, dry summers are fanning an unprecedented outbreak of bark beetles that are destroying vast swathes of central Europe's spruce forests which define the region's landscape.
Draught brought on by climate change has weakened trees' natural defences and helped spawn the insects, creating an infestation that has forced landowners to chop down broad patches of forest across the Czech Republic, northern Austria, Bavaria and Slovakia.
While the bark beetle is natural to conifer forests and has a role in their ecosystem, climate change has helped it spread especially through single-variety spruce woods planted over the past two centuries.
The Czech Republic has been worst hit. Last year, the beetle infested 18 million cubic metres of spruce, more than 10 times amounts seen in most previous years, according to Agriculture Ministry estimates.
This year, forecasts range from 20 to 30 million cubic metres, out of 480 million cubic metres of spruce timber in total, as the situation is expected to deteriorate across the region, especially given a lack of rainfall so far this spring.
"Eighty percent of Czech spruce forests are at high risk of dying," said Jaromir Blaha, forest expert at Hnuti Duha, an environmental NGO. "Most of our spruce monocultures in lower and mid-laying areas will probably disappear, in years or in a few decades."
Think tank Czech Forest says the area destroyed last year alone was equal to 100,000 soccer fields.
Central Europe's spruce forests are a key source of income for the timber industry. The forests also conserve water and help cool down the landscape, capture carbon, prevent flooding and are a popular destination for hikers and mountain bikers.