FORT COLLINS, Colo., Jan. 15, 2021 – Scientists from the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station have created TreeMap, a first-of-its-kind tree-level map of the forests of the United States.
Forest Service scientists developed TreeMap to understand the risks wildfire poses to carbon stored in forests. Current wildfire simulation models addressed the fire component of their question, but to tackle the carbon side, they needed information on U.S. forests at the individual tree level. That dataset did not yet exist at a national scale, and with over 2.8 billion pixels of imagery to populate, creating it was a daunting task.
In a research paper published today in Nature Scientific Data, the scientists, Karin Riley, Mark Finney, and Isaac Grenfell describe their innovative approach. TreeMap paired two databases: The Forest Inventory and Analysis database and LANDFIRE. FIA contains tree-level information from thousands of plots across the United States, but the plots don’t provide wall-to-wall coverage. LANDFIRE provides a 30x30 meter grid of geospatial information like vegetation type and disturbance history for the entire United States, but lacks information at the tree level.
Through an artificial intelligence technique, the scientists essentially matched each pixel of the LANDFIRE database with a forest inventory plot that best represented that area. For any 30x30-meter pixel, a TreeMap user can download tree-level information and produce maps of those attributes, like tree density, heights, and species.
Beyond understanding fire risk to carbon, TreeMap has broad applications for land managers. It is already being used to inventory wildlife habitat, map forest types, and evaluate how proposed management actions may affect carbon stocks and local hydrology.
Several of Riley's colleagues have been applying the dataset to improve firefighter safety by providing snag hazard maps for active fire incidents. Snags (standing dead trees) are one of the most common causes of firefighter casualties. Incident-specific maps are created and shared through the Risk Management Assistance Dashboard, giving incident response teams a quick picture of what conditions to expect on the ground, identifying hazardous areas, and ultimately improving firefighter safety.
With TreeMap in hand, the Rocky Mountain Research Station team can now return to the broader question of how wildfire affects forest carbon, including expected emissions and how much carbon fires leave behind. Eventually, they hope to evaluate these impacts into the future, as changing climate and fire regimes reshape forests.
“Detailed research at this scale often takes years or decades to complete, but there is a high payoff in terms of understanding our environment, as questions about climate change, wildfire, and carbon storage loom large,” said Riley.
The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) is one of seven units within the U.S. Forest Service Research and Development. RMRS maintains 14 field laboratories throughout a 12-state territory encompassing parts of the Great Basin, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains. RMRS also administers and conducts research on 14 experimental forests, ranges and watersheds and maintains long-term research databases for these areas. While anchored in the geography of the West our research is global in scale. To find out more about the RMRS go to www.fs.usda.gov/rmrs. You can also follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/usfs_rmrs.
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