What is small and provokes fear in forest owners? No, not acorns. Think smaller than that, four millimeters long in fact: The European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus). As the climate gets warmer, the spruce bark beetle is becoming an increasing plague for Swedish forestry, and the industry has long been wondering about methods to fight this annoying little pest. There might just be a solution that has come from the Swedish state forest giant Sveaskog which has turned to a very daring method of fighting it together with French information tech consulting company ‘Sogeti’ – let Artificial Intelligence do its magic together with satellites in space. This is not a fly swatter, but something that should, au contraire, strike real fear in the eyes of the beetle. . .
There’s a saying: Don’t underestimate the power of underestimation. They can’t stop you if they don’t see you coming. If you’re a tiny four-millimeter European spruce bark beetle, I suggest you stop reading, this article may contain content that looks at ways that seek to destroy you. Carry on at your own discretion. Now that only humans and brave beetles are reading, let’s look at why it is a small but powerful force, and a major nuisance for some. Actually, it is the most serious pest for spruce forest. It attacks fir trees and can breed in standing trees and lying fresh wood, but prefers weakened firs with fresh and thick bark. If the opportunity to multiply, for example after a storm, where the wood is left in the forest, it can lay eggs in completely healthy trees. If the firs are attacked to a large extent and at frequent intervals, they die.
Do you understand the severity of the problem now? If not, let’s look at some statistics: Last year, spruce bark beetles destroyed between three and four million cubic meters of spruce forest in Sweden, and if the summer gets hot and dry this year again, they can in the worst case destroy 12.5 million cubic meters according to the Swedish Forest Agency’s calculations. This corresponds to a value of just over SEK 6 billion (!). How about now? Have we captured your attention?
Not only in Sweden but in other parts of Europe have this European spruce bark beetle manifested itself in places where it does not belong. Anger and fear are two common emotions for forest owners. For the forest industry in Southern and Central Europe, they have long been a problem and they have wondered and debated about various methods to take care of the problem. Take the example of the Šumava National Park in Czech Republic where they faced a dilemma about intervention or conservation? In most cases it is intervention that becomes the decision. . .
Sveaskog and Sogeti to the rescue
Sveaskog, which owns 14 per cent of Sweden’s forests and is thus the country’s largest forest owner and the IT company Sogeti, have decided that an effective way to chase these beetles away is to first identify them from space with a unique technology that enables quick handling of affected forest. Is this really the solution we have been waiting for? They have found that to find the attacks more quickly, they have started to use open data from the European Space Agency’s satellites, so-called sentinel data. With these, detailed images of the forests are identified with AI. It is simply too difficult to identify a fir tree bark with the help of image analysis, but it is more flexible to compare images over time to see sudden changes in an area.
Johan Ekenstedt, technical specialist at Sveaskog, stated that it’s not possible to discern single trees and speed is important: “… When a number of trees are attacked, they should not be left in the forest so that the beetles can continue their attacks on the trees around. It is important to get rid of the infected wood before it is completely destroyed.” [Source: IDG] The solution is also based on Sogeti’s Geo Satellite Intelligence, which uses artificial intelligence, satellite imagery and advanced algorithms to produce detailed maps that visualize the advancement of spruce bark in the forest. Effective collaboration here could be the key, but it’s still in a phase of development . . .
The developing solution that is now being used to save forest from the attacks, however, has gone unusually fast the work just started a few months ago. One reason is that the satellite images have become so much better in recent years, says Johan Ekenstedt. “The images from the free satellites have not been so good so therefore there have been problems with input data. Now we have sentinel that is getting better all the time, but it can still be difficult to get every pixel to get right and if it gets a shift then the whole analysis falls”. Whether Mr. Ekenstedt and his partners can stop this annoying beetle is not a question of if but a question of when. . . the beetle should be worried.
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