Banish the beetles

This data project could help save forests being destroyed by insects

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A new project that combines satellite data, airplane mapping data and on-the-ground field data of the forests of the Pacific Northwest over several decades could help researchers better manage future forest insect outbreaks across the globe. The project, published in the journal of Forest Ecology and Management recently, was conducted by researchers at Oregon State University.

The study is the first of its kind to combine these various data sets about the effects of two common insects on the forests of Oregon and Washington across so many years (1970 to 2012). The data collected looks at the effects of the mountain pine beetle — a bark beetle which attacks the stems of pine trees leading to rapid tree death — and the western spruce budworm, which eats host trees’ foliage leaving the tree vulnerable and potentially leading to death.

A forest in British Columbia, with pine beetle outbreak.
A forest in British Columbia, with pine beetle outbreak.

If you’ve ever spent any time in the larger forest regions of the U.S. and Canada, then you’ve probably come across some of the dead forest zones that have been affected by outbreaks of these insects. On a trip through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado a few years ago, the evidence of miles of dead forests due to insects was all around.

Over the years, it’s become clear that a variety of conditions, like droughts, forest fires, and the changing climate, have led to an increase in these insect outbreaks on forests across the U.S. In the Pacific Northwest, in particular, there’s been widespread outbreaks from both of these insects in recent decades, and the study is one of the few that looks at ways that both insects are affecting forests in tandem (both the rapid death from the pine beetle and the slower defoliage from the budworm).

The mountain pine beetle
The mountain pine beetle

Using the various data sets, the project was able to develop much more detailed maps of insect-affected forests in the Pacific Northwest over time, which will give land managers in that region more accurate new tools to fight new outbreaks. If they know when, why and where previous outbreaks emerged, then they can begin to predict and prevent future outbreaks. Researchers could use these methods for other forest areas in the U.S, or even globally, that are suffering from new insect outbreaks.

Studies like these are important because they’re taking advantage of the latest data analytics tools: newly available algorithms, recently-compiled data sets, and the cutting edge in distributed computing to help manage problems that have been observed, and largely been misunderstood, for decades. Programs like Google Earth Engine (launched in 2010) have been offering Google’s computing power to organizations and universities to help save the world’s forests.

Garrett Meigs, who’s currently a researcher at the University of Vermont, conducted the forest insect mapping project as a PhD student at Oregon State University in conjunction with Robert Kennedy, an assistant professor in Oregon State University‚Äôs College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Kennedy tells that Oregon State and Google are working together to make the insect outbreak mapping data available for free online via Google Earth Engine. (Gigaom’s Structure: Data conference is being held later this month in New York and will feature Google’s VP of Infrastructure Eric Brewer).

2 Responses to “This data project could help save forests being destroyed by insects”

  1. slfisher

    I was interested to learn a few years ago that pine trees under stress, such as disease or drought, “scream,” and that the pine beetles can detect the scream and head for those trees. That offers the possibility of stopping the beetles through sound techniques.