Monitoring forest threats with the new open forest observatory

Environmental managers will have a powerful new resource to help our forests survive and recover from wildfires, drought and disease.

UC Davis ecologist Derek Young leads a team to develop the Open Forest Observatory, a pioneering project combining drone photography and forest mapping with machine learning, remote sensing, big data processing, and l open information supply. The observatory will offer technology so user-friendly that users will only need a few weeks to learn it, instead of a year. And, for the first time, the project will make the resulting database available in a central repository.

“We will produce the data and the tools to help others solve the thorny questions of forest ecology and land management,” said Young, an ecologist in the Department of Plant Sciences.

A $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation is funding the observatory over five years, including work at two partner institutions. It takes flight this month, offering the potential to elevate ecological research to new heights.

Drone forest imaging

Using high-definition cameras now available on drones at relatively low cost, the observatory will house a database of detailed information about the terrain, down to the size, species and health of individual trees.

Young’s team will develop software to create these maps using best practices in drone forest imagery. In their earlier work, they comprehensively codified these practices for the first time. Researchers and forest managers will be able to access the observatory’s maps to answer their own questions or use its tools to produce new maps and share them via the observatory.

The project will also provide drone pilot training for UC Davis students, as well as drone piloting and forest mapping concepts for high school students in towns affected by wildfires, Young added.

UC Davis ecologist Derek Young tests a drone in 2020 in the Modoc National Forest in northeastern California. Drone-mounted cameras have gained in resolution while falling in price, putting their map-making potential within reach for the Open Forest Observatory project. (Tara Ursell/UC Davis)

The result should be massive amounts of information, organized to allow comparison of all sorts of variables across space and time.

The project will also provide drone pilot training for UC Davis students, as well as drone piloting and forest mapping concepts for high school students in towns affected by wildfires, Young added.

Struggle Forest Density

The observatory can help scientists solve pressing problems, such as how to thin out dangerously dense forests despite insufficient budgets.

“Thinning forests in the densest stands in the driest locations will be an effective way to reduce tree mortality in extreme drought conditions,” Young said.

In many areas, trees grow up to 400 per acre, compared to 80 per acre in a healthy forest, according to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. With 25 million forested acres in the Sierra Nevada, tree density increases wildfire risk and endangers watersheds up and down the range – and the water supply of three-quarters of residents of State.

“This is one of the biggest challenges facing natural resource managers right now,” Young said.

The team’s grant also includes examining how – and if – new trees are growing in burned areas. They will start with maps created before a fire, then revisit the area to map surviving trees.

“To predict how seeds will disperse in these burned areas, you need to know where the surviving trees are, how they are arranged in space, what species they are, and how dense they are,” Young said. Burned areas could be tracked in the future to see how long survivors last and how quickly new vegetation establishes itself.

Tyson Swetnam will lead data storage and processing through the University of Arizona CyVerse initiative, a cloud-based computing and analytics platform. Michael Koontz will lead the development of an open, repeatable workflow for creating digital maps, as well as training to use them, through the University of Colorado. Environmental Science Research Institute.

This story originally appeared on the UC Davis Plant Sciences website.

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