Use spy in the sky in beetle battle, Roberts proposes

February 24, 2005, vol. 32, no. 4
By Marianne Meadahl

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B.C.'s forests would greatly benefit from the use of an airborne remote sensing strategy aimed at early detection of infestations of the mountain pine beetle before they spread to epidemic proportions, says SFU geographer Arthur Roberts.

His research has determined that it is possible to detect the pests and subsequently monitor and track their spread across several generations.

Such a strategy would help forest companies to better plan when and where to cut infested trees for maximum profit and benefit, and assist resource managers in their assessment and mitigation of forest fire risk, says Roberts.

For the past several years, Roberts, a professor and pilot, has flown a SFU research aircraft - modified for high-altitude aerial surveying - over areas of B.C.'s central interior, using time sequential high-resolution aerial imagery to determine changes in everything from salmon stocks to the devastating presence of the Mountain Pine beetle.

Roberts' latest finding comes after analysing his comprehensive data following monthly flights over the same densely treed study areas in the Cariboo. The flights were conducted in the spring and summer of 2002 and 2003.

His time sequential images track the various stages of infestation and enable him to trace individual trees back to when they were first infested.

Roberts' research has indicated it is possible to determine the year of mortality for infested trees for the three years preceeding the season in which the aerial imagery was flown. He points out that such estimates of the shelf life or timber usefulness of infested trees, based on time since mortality, are really unknown but likely range from five to seven years.

“It takes about 15 years for dead trees to fall, and once they do they become potent fire hazards,” he adds, noting the potential damage that burning fallen trees can do to the forest floor. Improving shelf life estimates will permit more cost effective cutting of the infected trees, also called bugwood, as well as planning for reduction of forest fire hazards.

Roberts says B.C.'s current remote sensing efforts only provide information to forest companies after the fact. “It would be useful during the process of applying for licences for their cutblocks (which normally happens in August) to have as accurate information as possible,” notes Roberts, whose research was funded by the B.C. minisry of forests, Forestry Innovation Investment, the Forest Investment Account and West Fraser Mills Ltd.

Roberts and colleague Steven Steinberg, who is SFU's first Fulbright chair in airborne remote sensing, plan to head back into the skies over B.C. this spring. Steinberg, an associate professor in environmental and natural resource sciences at Humboldt State University in California, has spent more than a decade in applied research and teaching in remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS).

The two are also studying seasonal environmental changes to coastal eel grass, which could have an effect on some fish species as well as migratory birds.

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