Growing cyberforests to predict the impacts of climate change

Realistic 3-D simulation helps forest managers anticipate disturbances

Drought, heat, and other irregular conditions spawned by climate change take a toll on tree ecosystems. How, exactly, will those stressors affect forests in the future? Predictions have been difficult—until now.

WSU Vancouver mathematicians Nikolay Strigul and Jean Lienard have created a 3-D computer simulation to visualize how tree ecosystems can be altered by factors such as carbon dioxide levels, wildfires, and drought. The simulator lets forest managers predict wildfires and other disturbances. If a forest is destroyed, the tool can help determine the species of trees and ecological factors necessary to reestablish it.

The computer model already enabled the research team to predict increases in fire rates and plant growth in Quebec hardwood forests—changes caused by rising CO2 levels and warmer temperatures.

Simulating forests with extensive detail

Recent advances in computing power allow the simulator to “grow” 100×100-meter stands of drought- and shade-tolerant trees. The researchers’ model is so realistic and detailed, it even represents individual trees’ branches, leaves, and roots. Simulated trees can be scaled up to actual forest size. The model can project the impact of climatic change on forests over thousands of years.

“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,” Dr. Strigul said.

To build models that match selected North American forests, the researchers gather data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program and other forestry databases. They also use information gleaned through reconnaissance from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Next on Drs. Strigul and Lienard’s docket: Modeling forest data from Europe and Asia.