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AI assess forest damage after hurricanes

Getting an accurate assessment for how much timber is damaged by hurricanes is essential for environmental management decisions, salvaging logging operations, insurance estimates and climate change studies.

May 14, 2024

3 Min Read
Category 5 hurricane force winds snapped in half pine trees along Florida's Panhandle.John Coletti/iStock/Getty Images Plus

By Meredith Bauer, University of Florida

With Hurricane Preparedness Week kicking off today, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers are preparing for hurricane season with state-of-the-art monitoring equipment that will help them determine how extensively forests are damaged during individual hurricanes.

When hurricanes careen through Florida, they not only damage homes and businesses, they also destroy forests and timber farms. Getting an accurate assessment for how much timber is damaged by hurricanes is essential for environmental management decisions, salvaging logging operations, tree farms’ insurance estimates and climate change studies, but so far, it’s been a vexing puzzle.

Carlos Silva, assistant professor of quantitative forest science in the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries and Geomatics Sciences and director of the forest biometrics, remote sensing and AI lab, said the key is to use a combination of remote sensing and artificial intelligence technologies, to create pre- and post-hurricane 3D maps of forests to evaluate forest loss. He uses satellites and lidar – a technology that uses lasers to collect data and which stands for Light Detection and Ranging – ground equipment to achieve this.

“Hurricanes pose a fundamental challenge for us in Florida,” Silva said. “The traditional way to assess the impact of hurricanes is basically going to the field, establishing plots and measuring trees. But if we’re thinking about large areas, it’s really time-consuming, therefore the traditional way of assessing impact of hurricanes on forest ecosystems is not efficient.”

“We are in a new era for monitoring forests, thanks to these innovative remote-sensing and AI methods,” he said.

Data help emergency managers and environmental managers make fast, smart decisions in the aftermath of a hurricane, he said. These data help them know which areas were most affected and need help immediately, as well as which would benefit from specialized action at a later time – such as where to do salvage logging operations.

Kody Brock, a senior in Silva’s lab, said the maps can help forest managers and landowners alike react quickly to hurricane damage.

“Hurricanes are only going to get worse and more frequent,” she said, “and we realize that in the field of forestry. Those are ecosystems we’re losing.”

According to Colorado State University’s hurricane forecasting team, hurricane season 2024 is shaping up to be an active one. The team is forecasting 23 storms. Of that, 11 will be hurricanes and five will be Category 3 or stronger.

Silva and his lab used NASA satellites, specifically the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) satellite and the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2), to scan trees on the ground with a laser pulse that sends back data on the structure of the forest, he said.

Additional data are collected with ground-based lidar scanners attached to all-terrain vehicles and a backpack apparatus to make high-resolution 3D maps of the forest.

The lidar and imagery data from satellites and ground-based sensors are all combined into a web-based mapping platform that shows a comprehensive picture of impacts to forest ecosystems from Hurricane Ian. The map is available online for anyone to use.

The data coming back from these sources includes the weight of trees before and after hurricanes, as well as 3D images of trees that can spot small changes like individual broken tree limbs, he said.

“There was no way to combine data from different sources – until now,” Silva said of his lab’s innovations.

Silva’s research is funded by a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) through the Rapid Response to Extreme Weather Events Across Food and Agricultural Systems program.

Silva’s team also included Inacio Bueno and Caio Hamamura, postdoctoral researchers, and Monique Schlickmann, a Ph.D. student.

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