Life of trees: monitoring and modelling Poland's primeval forest

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© LIFE13 ENV/PL/000048 (LIFE+ ForBioSensing)

Tools used by LIFE+ ForBioSensing PL are able to map single trees from the 22 million individuals in Poland’s Białowieża Forest. With this level of detail, the project can monitor changes to the forest structure and help better manage these precious landscapes.

Białowieża Forest is one of the largest remaining parts of a huge primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. It covers an area of approximately 150 000 ha in Poland and Belarus. This area is managed by foresters and national park authorities who keep a check on changes like numbers of dead trees, numbers and species of the youngest trees, and changes in canopy coverage and ground vegetation.

The LIFE+ ForBioSensing PL team has been using LIFE funding to identify changes in forest structure and tree species composition in Białowieża Forest. “We are using remote-sensing data to provide the most accurate up-to-date information about the stands,” explained Dr Krzysztof Stereńczak from the Forest Research Institute in Poland. “Our aim is to provide data to the people who take care of the forest.”
“With modelling, we can for example forecast what would replace old spruce stands – and this is a proxy for climate change.”

Thanks to dendrochronological studies – the practice of dating trees by their growth rings – the team can look back almost 400 years to see how the forest stands have been affected by climate, hydrology and various disturbances, including man-made management. Tree ring data from ancient trees and old deadwood provide information about the history and development of forest stands accurate to a year.

LIFE+ ForBioSensing PL is also able to monitor important current trends including:

  • spatial dynamics of the bark beetle outbreaks;
  • spatial distribution of gaps in the forest;
  • distribution and size of tree/stands.

Monitoring the current dynamics of Norway spruce is also an important activity. Spruce is linked to spread of the bark beetle (Ips typographus), outbreaks of which substantially change the tree population. By conducting regular surveys of spruce regeneration and mortality rates, the project team hopes to provide objective empirical data which may assist in decisions about how to manage the current outbreak.

Monitoring and mapping

Specialists in the project use monitoring devices called dendrometers to measure the growth of tree circumference. These devices are permanently installed on the trees and keep a record of at least 2 years’ growth combined with air temperature, updated every hour.

© LIFE13 ENV/PL/000048 (LIFE+ ForBioSensing) - Łukasz Kuberski

Other methods include airborne laser scanning and satellite imagery to build maps and data about large-scale spatial distribution of the forest stands.

Knowledge of different climatic parameters can be used later in modelling and to understand the different factors influencing the forest ecosystems. This in turn is helping national park and forest managers to implement relevant nature conservation and forest management activities.

Open data portals

With the wealth of data being generated, the project is focused on sharing and distributing its findings as widely as possible. “We want to make this data available for all stakeholders – for free”, said Dr Stereńczak. “For instance, the Białowieża National Park took most of our data and uses it to manage European bison and lynx populations.”

The project has developed open data portals to allow access to scientists, researchers, NGOs, nature conservation and forest management authorities and the public. Data and results of measurements and analyses are published on a map portal developed by the project. Given the length of the project, which spans 7 years, the team is also able to monitor dynamics. “From 2015 to 2018 we have a full map of changes: amongst others we can check the spread of spruce decline, the direction, and the cause,” said Dr Stereńczak.

Spatial data is complemented by a weather monitoring portal (in Polish), created using readings from 3 meteorological stations located within the forest. Data is updated every 10 minutes to give visitors a near-real time picture of weather in the area.

Erasmus+ volunteers

As a way to share knowledge from the project and to raise awareness, LIFE+ ForBioSensing PL runs a regular volunteering scheme, sometimes alongside Erasmus+.

Lander Amado, a student from Spain who was a volunteer from the Erasmus+ programme, was enthusiastic about the people he met and skills he learned during his time with the team.

What did you learn in the field?

"First of all I learn how to be in a different forest. Białowieża Forest is not like other forests: you have to be more careful with trees that can fall or with branches and wood which lie on the ground. At the same time, I have learnt to use many devices such as Vertex or dendro batteries."

What’s your best memory from staying in the Białowieża Forest?

"People are the best thing about this project, and meeting all the team has been the best way to work in the forest. As a volunteer, they help you with everything to make sure you can work easily. And the forest itself, it's rare to see something like this and I'm glad to be working in it."

How do you think you'll make use of this knowledge in your career or studies?

"Everything that you do in your life is useful. In this case, I have gained skills in Excel, and in using some tools that in a short period of time can be my work tools. Apart from that, working alongside different people has been great to gain new people and teamwork skills."

Video: The Life of a tree ("Życie drzewa")

The ForBioSensing project team has created a promotional film entitled "The Life of a tree".
The production presents the life of a tree in the forest, from seed to death. No human appears in any of the scenes; the film is fully devoted to the natural beauty of the forest.

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