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The little terror that loves climate change

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Shrinking glaciers, the typical image we have of climate change in the Alps, is not a major concern anymore in Slovenia. There are only two small glaciers here, Skuta and Triglav Glacier. They rather resemble a patch of snow than a glacier as you might imagine it. Both will have disappeared completely in the not so distant future. Luckily for Slovenia, those two glaciers never had any importance for local freshwater supply.

It is the progression of the spruce bark-beetle which is the real concern here, says Majda Odar, the Head of Information and Education Services at Triglav National Park. Although the little insect is a natural component of every healthy conifer forest, it can endanger an entire forest when the conditions are right. Warmer temperatures, longer summers, droughts, strong winds, unmanaged windthrow - those are the conditions the bark-beetles love. Indeed, the little terror was striving during the hot and dry year of 2018 and those before.

Meanwhile, droughts and hot temperatures are hell for the spruce bark-beetle’s favourite and name-giving victim. Unlike other pine trees, the spruce does not adapt well to the new climate. The lack of water reduces its ability to produce the shielding resin that a healthy tree releases to kill beetles. And as trees grow 100 years and older, they are by nature not made to adapt their genes to the faster pace of climate change. Majda told me that under current warming scenarios, scientists expect that spruce will have completely disappeared from the Triglav National Park by the end of the century. They will be replaced with more resilient species, such as maple.

What happens around Triglav National Park is the local manifestation of a phenomenon that has kept foresters busy across North America, Europe and Siberia. As Yale Environment 360 reported in 2017, the observed conifer mortality due to the bark-beetle is unprecedented in North America and Europe. The consequences of large bark-beetle infestation can be far-reaching and include increasing risks of wildfires, watershed disruptions and habitat destruction. The direct economic risks are considerable too, as spruce is the most important source of wood supply in Europe and North America. Active forest management and keeping a healthy species and tree age diversity is therefore becoming even more important to mitigate such climate risks.

At the same time as the bark-beetle infests forests around Triglav National Park, more and more tourists desire to visit the scenic landscape. Every year, over two million people visit the park - that’s more than the entire population of Slovenia. Awarded travel destination of the year by Lonely Planet in 2017, the pristine nature of Slovenia attracts a rapidly growing number of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. They bring money to local communities. Yet they also exercise additional pressure on the fragile ecosystem.

Reconciling conservation and tourism requires new concepts for sustainable tourism. For example, re-directing visitors from inside the park to new trails that lead around it takes pressure away from fragile areas while offering stunning vistas to tourists. Also, restricting vehicle access to the park to locally operated public transport systems reduces traffic and noise emissions while generating income for local communities. Realising those concepts calls for long-winded collaboration across government agencies, communities and tourists - stakeholders with potentially divergent interests. This collaboration has become essential, Majda said, yet stressing that it is not always easy. It is necessary to achieve real win-wins for people and nature, Majda remains convinced.

After the conversation with Majda, I remembered the words of Christiana Figueres at a Davos meeting I attended as staff a few years ago. Solving climate change, the former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC said, offers us all a helpful “gym” to get in shape for many other complex global collaboration challenges that lie ahead of us and need cooperation to be fixed - by governments, business, you and me. Her statement is probably more true than ever.


On 12 December 2018, the tallest spruce of the Swiss Alps had to be cut down. It was 250 years old and stood in Luven, in the canton of Grisons. The locals named it La Panera, as its regular branches looked like the hanging breadbaskets that are typical for the region. The tree was an important place for people from the village. They used to gather around it to celebrate New Years Eve and on other social occasions. Now it is gone. It fell victim to the bark beetle.



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