Digital Twin Hub > Case Studies > Case studies > Pulse of the Forest

Case Study Overview

Forests play a crucial role in mitigating climate change by regulating ecosystems, preserving biodiversity, supporting livelihoods, and contributing to the carbon cycle. Constituting roughly one-third of the Earth’s land surface, they have a significant impact on climate through physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms that influence planetary energetics, the hydrologic cycle, and atmospheric composition.

Towards using digital twins in forestry

Forests play a crucial role in mitigating climate change by regulating ecosystems, preserving biodiversity, supporting livelihoods, and contributing to the carbon cycle. Constituting roughly one-third of the Earth’s land surface, they have a significant impact on climate through physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms that influence planetary energetics, the hydrologic cycle, and atmospheric composition.

For the last 50 years, the significance of Earth’s ecosystems for human prosperity, economic growth, and sustainable development has been at the forefront of the public discourse and global politics. To fully capitalise on their climate benefits, it is essential to preserve more forest landscapes, adopt sustainable management practices, and restore natural environments that have been lost.

The Forest Flows programme

The world’s forests are at risk due to deforestation and forest degradation. The primary cause of deforestation is agriculture, although poorly planned infrastructure is also becoming a significant threat. Forest degradation, on the other hand, is mainly caused by illegal logging. Shockingly, in 2019, the tropics lost nearly 30 soccer fields’ worth of trees every minute (WWF, 2023).

Forest Flows works to create resilient landscapes in New Zealand. Broadly, the Forest Flows programme works towards contributing to finding solutions to some of these issues. They do this by looking at the impacts of changes in management practices on forests, land use changes on water resources, and the establishment of carbon forests.

Pulse of the Forest

To this end, Forest Flows is developing its Digital Twin, Pulse of the Forest. The ambitious objective of this programme is to develop a novel biophysical model for forest hydrology. This model will merge advanced remote sensing techniques with ground-based measurements to create a digital representation of planted forests across New Zealand, scaling from individual trees to entire catchments.

This digital twin will be accompanied by comprehensive analysis and simulation capabilities, along with robust tools for visualisation and data access for users. Pulse of the Forest represents a significant advancement in hydrology research on a global scale.

Advanced remote sensing technologies such as L- and P-Band radar, hyperspectral imaging, and LiDAR will be employed to collect data along with on-ground measurements at six monitoring sites in forested catchments across New Zealand. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has established a Lora sensor network equipped with sensors to measure climate, groundwater, streamwater, and other parameters. The data gathered by Scion and NIWA sensors will enable real-time monitoring of water use, retention, and release in catchments. In total, Forest Flows will utilise 19 different types of sensors and collectors at each primary site.

To handle the massive volume of over 300,000 daily observations, Scion has developed the Forest Flows Big Data Kafka Pipeline from the ground up. This innovative solution, a first of its kind in New Zealand, can efficiently stream, clean, summarise, and store big data as it arrives in real-time from the forest. The terrestrial data will be stored in cloud storage, making it more accessible to both national and international collaborators, thus promoting collaboration among researchers.

The intensive monitoring at terrestrial sites can be integrated with remote sensing data, enabling the fusion of both datasets. To achieve success, innovative analysis and processing methods will be necessary to establish robust relationships between terrestrial measurements and remote sensing data. This will enable the creation of a biophysical model that can accurately predict forest hydrological fluxes across a range of New Zealand planted forests, accounting for different tree species, catchment positions, soil/geology, climates, and seasons.

By upscaling linked temporal and spatial data, the model will provide a fast and cost-effective means of collecting high-quality data from even remote forest areas, which can be quickly translated into accurate and reliable predictions of hydrology fluxes. This information will be invaluable for optimising water use and water quality in planted forests.

What are the benefits?

The Forest Digital Twin is an invaluable tool in providing support for decision makers in areas of water resource management applications and land management. By monitoring the fundamental processes in real-time, changes in those areas become easily quantifiable. It can be used to identify opportunities to change the trajectory of what we are observing to get better outcomes in those landscapes. Understanding the current systems, including their properties, processes of change and their drivers, helps us plan for the future.

This is different to other approaches in the sector. When it comes to traditional ways of forecasting carbon stocks, yield, and carbon accounting, for instance, forestry companies are struggling to identify why their empirical models are currently overestimating observed yields by 20 to 30%. The reality is that this is because those models are based on relationships between growth and environment that were developed using old environmental data and did not include relevant factors. Hence, it is difficult for these companies to determine the measure to which the difference between the observed results and their predictions of carbon storage in those forests is due to other factors, such as changes in climate, environment, soil, management practices, or genotype.

Currently, New Zealand lacks a body responsible for building conceptual models of its biological systems to look into the impact of change on biological systems. This is why the Forest Flows project is so valuable: it is helping to visualise how systems will respond to climates that are yet to happen through modelling experiments based on the conceptual understanding of the system.

At its core, the programme aims to predict emergent issues and identify resilient genotypes to design systems that are more likely to be resilient in future climates. In this way, the model helps to predict how the forest industries are going to adapt to the rapid speed of climate change that they are going to be confronted with in the future, when temperatures are forecasted to rise by two to two and a half degrees Celsius.

Towards building a Digital Twin of the Earth

Conversations with people. That is how science happens.

Don White
Forest Researcher (Ecophysiology, Water Relations), Forest Flows

By engaging the larger scientific community, Forest Flows is part of the global effort of forest preservation and restoration. In the coming decades, population growth and human activities are expected to amplify the current pressures on critical resources such as fresh water and food, intensify the stress on land ecosystems, as well as increase environmental pollution and its impacts on health and biodiversity.

These threats, together with more intense extreme events like floods and heatwaves, will need to be closely monitored, especially for our most vulnerable populations. The development of new technologies for collecting data is opening up new possibilities for monitoring forest ecosystems in a more integrated manner. We can take advantage of the technological progress in collecting data at the individual tree level, along with established forest monitoring technologies such as remote sensing. The use of evolving data to provide an accurate description of how forests change over time is a key pillar in developing forest digital twins.

Such initiatives help improve our understanding of climate change and enable solutions at a global, regional, and local level. The advancement of Connected Digital Twins shows that we cannot fight the climate crises individually and without digital technologies. For instance, such technologies have the power to help us find ways to avoid further environmental degradation.

Special thanks to Don White, who works in the Forest Flows programme and runs the biophysical modelling component, for sharing his knowledge of the programme.