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05.31.21 – Patrick James receives funding from the Ontario government to study the spread of the spruce budworm

Ontario's provincial government announced last week that it has entered into a collaborative research partnership with Daniels Faculty associate professor of forestry Patrick James to study the effects of the eastern spruce budworm on Ontario's boreal forests.

Ontario will provide James's lab with a three-year, $56,000 grant, which he'll use to conduct an extensive analysis of aerial and satellite imagery. By combining and interpolating these two data sources, he expects to be able to produce a greatly improved set of data on the Ontario spread of the budworm, a native pest that kills balsam fir and white spruce trees by the millions.

The data produced by the study will be made available to other researchers, for use in further studies of the way the budworm impacts Ontario's forests. It will also have applications in forest management.

"The spruce budworm is the most significant disturbance in Canada's boreal forest. It disrupts more area than harvesting and fire combined," James says. "We're on the precipice of a new outbreak in Ontario. An outbreak in Quebec has been going for 10 or 15 years. Because of the spatial extent of these outbreaks, they touch all aspects of the forest sector, including productivity, risk of future disturbance, forest carbon budgets, and biodiversity. Accurate mapping of these outbreaks is essential to guide management and understand the consequences for forest ecosystem function."

The research will be conducted by Clara Risk, a PhD student who works in James' lab as a research assistant.

Patrick James and Clara Risk

Patrick James and Clara Risk.

The reason aerial and satellite images are useful for tracking the budworm is that budworm-infested trees have a distinct appearance. As the trees die, their foliage takes on a reddish hue, which makes them relatively easy to visually identify from above.

But scientists who study the budworm in Ontario have, so far, been bottlenecked by a lack of comprehensive data. Satellite imagery captures wide swaths of land, but lacks the level of detail necessary for researchers to precisely identify budworm-affected forests. Aerial surveys, done by technicians in aircraft, have the right level of detail but lack completeness. There are gaps between the flight paths of the planes, which lead to omissions in the resulting aerial sketch maps.

James and Risk will attempt to solve this conundrum by using artificial intelligence to combine the two types of image data into a single, unified data set, covering all of Ontario and parts of Quebec. Other researchers have previously attempted variations on this technique, but never at this scale.

"Our main goal is to ameliorate the data we have so that it can be used by others and by us to analyze and forecast defoliation patterns," Risk says. "For example, we might be able to investigate why outbreaks appear in certain locations."

The project's provincial grant is a product of Ontario's forest sector strategy, which calls upon the government to support research to inform evidence-based decision-making. The province also announced this week that it is entering into a similar research partnership with McMaster University, to study the effects of climate change on forest growth and yield.

"The research will not only further our understanding of environmental pressures on Ontario's forests by harnessing leading technology, but also ensure Ontario's forests remain healthy today and for future generations," John Yakabuski, Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, said in a press release.

Top image: Aerial survey information and remote sensing data for a 2018 spruce budworm outbreak near Timmins, Ontario.