Predicting population dynamics is a fundamental problem in applied ecology. Temperature is a potential driver of short-term population dynamics, and temperature data are widely available, but we generally lack validated models to predict dynamics based upon temperatures. A generalized approach involves estimating the temperatures experienced by a population, characterizing the demographic consequences of physiological responses to temperature, and testing for predicted effects on abundance. We employed this approach to test whether minimum winter temperatures are a meaningful driver of pestilence from Dendroctonus frontalis (the southern pine beetle) across the southeastern United States. A distance-weighted interpolation model provided good, spatially explicit, predictions of minimum winter air temperatures (a putative driver of beetle survival). A Newtonian heat transfer model with empirical cooling constants indicated that beetles within host trees are buffered from the lowest air temperatures by 1–4°C (depending on tree diameter and duration of cold bout). The life stage structure of beetles in the most northerly outbreak in recent times (New Jersey) were dominated by prepupae, which were more cold tolerant (by >3°C) than other life stages. Analyses of beetle abundance data from 1987 to 2005 showed that minimum winter air temperature only explained 1.5% of the variance in interannual growth rates of beetle populations, indicating that it is but a weak driver of population dynamics in the southeastern United States as a whole. However, average population growth rate matched theoretical predictions of a process-based model of winter mortality from low temperatures; apparently our knowledge of population effects from winter temperatures is satisfactory, and may help to predict dynamics of northern populations, even while adding little to population predictions in southern forests. Recent episodes of D. frontalis outbreaks in northern forests may have been allowed by a warming trend from 1960 to 2004 of 3.3°C in minimum winter air temperatures in the southeastern United States. Studies that combine climatic analyses, physiological experiments, and spatially replicated time series of population abundance can improve population predictions, contribute to a synthesis of population and physiological ecology, and aid in assessing the ecological consequences of climatic trends.