Cyberforests Created to Predict Climate Change


Researchers at Washington State University, Vancouver have created the world’s first cyber forest for better prediction of the climate change effects. They created the first computer simulation that grows realistic forests down to the branches, leaves and roots of individual trees.

The model called by the name LES, uses recent advances in computing power to grow 100×100-meter stands of drought and shade tolerant trees that can then be scaled up to actual forest size.

“We call our model LES after the Russian word for forest,” said Nikolay Strigul, assistant professor at Washington State University (WSU) Vancouver, who grew up in Russia and came to the US in 2001. He says it is a tool that forest managers can use to create 3D representations of their own forests and simulate what will happen to them in the future.

The model is unique in several ways. First, it is the only forest-growing simulator that creates intricate root systems and canopy structures for each tree. Previous forest simulators could either grow one or the other. Below ground, the roots of different trees in LES compete for water resources in each pixel of the model. Above ground, the leaves in each tree’s canopy compete for sunlight in a similar fashion. Over time, the trees’ canopies change shape to expose their leaves to more sunlight.

The researchers use a combination of data from the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program and other forestry databases, as well as aerial reconnaissance from UAVs, to customize their model to particular forests. The simulator lets scientists project how changing climate conditions will impact forests over thousands of years.

“In cooperation with the US Forest Service, we developed a method where we fly drones around a forest and take pictures and gather other imaging information,” said Jean Lienard, a mathematics postdoctoral researcher at WSU.

“We use this data to develop 3D models that have real distributions of space and ecological features,” Lienard added.

They found that climate change is leading to more frequent drought, warmer weather and other varying natural conditions in large parts of North America. It is hoped that the model can help predict if forests are at risk of desertification or other climate change-related processes and identify what can be done to conserve these systems.

The research has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.