Researchers "Grow" Cyberforests To Understand Effects Of Climate Change


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockFeb 25 2016, 22:40 UTC
71 Researchers "Grow" Cyberforests To Understand Effects Of Climate Change
Real trees are on the right. Trees on the left were made using imaging data collected by aerial drones and the LES forest simulator. Washington State University

How can we work out what will happen to our forests in the future? One team of researchers thinks they have an answer. 

Jean Lienard and Nikolay Strigul, two mathematicians from Washington State University, have developed a computer model that can create an intensely in-depth simulation of forests to help predict the effects of environmental changes. Their project is fully explained in the journal Royal Society Open Science.


They have called the model “LES” – after the Russian word for forest, as a homage to Strigul’s Russian childhood. 

Lienard and Strigul gathered their abundance of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Inventory and Analysis Program, along with other forestry databases and their own video data from aerial drones.

An insight into LES's algorithm for root system competition. Several root systems can simultaneously extract water from the same spot (although their water uptake at that location is then reduced)​. Washington State University


Using recent advances in computing power, the system can replicate the processes of tree growth with a stunning amount of detail.

Although each tree grows as a single entity, together they can form intricate root systems and canopy structures that force them to compete for resources and space. The varying requirements, sensitivity, and rate of growth of different tree species is also accounted for. On top of this, the model can then simulate the effects of varying carbon dioxide levels, water levels, sunlight levels, and temperatures right down to single leaves and roots. 

LES can simulate 1,000 years of forest life within just three weeks. This speed allows computer models like this to play a key role in preempting some of the long-term effects of climate change. The model has already been used to predict how Quebec hardwood forests cope with rising carbon dioxide levels and warmer temperatures.


In the near future, the researchers hope to use LES to help forest managers across North America assess the best methods to recover from “dynamic disturbances” such as wildfires or clear-cutting.

“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,” Strigul said in a statement.

He added, "Our model can help predict if forests are at risk of desertification or other climate change-related processes and identify what can be done to conserve these systems."

  • tag
  • climate change,

  • environment,

  • computer simulations,

  • computer science