Forest devastated by bark beetle infestation in Sumava National Park and Bavarian Forest, Czech Republic and Germany © 2019, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Curious Planeteer working to make the Earth's changes visible, accessible and actionable.

Bark Beetles Are Decimating Forests: Satellite Data Can Help


Bark beetle infestations devastated 18 million cubic meters of forest in the Czech Republic last year, due in part to very dry summers brought on by the effects of climate change. Historically, bark beetles have been a valuable part of nature conservation, playing an important role in the ecosystem of conifer forests. But in such great numbers they’ve proven to be bringers of potentially irreversible and destructive change across the United States and Europe. In the Czech Republic alone, bark beetle infestations have forced many landowners to cut down massive swaths of trees and caused losses of almost 20 billion crowns ($87 million) from lower timber prices.

Ignited by the urgency of the situation, the Forest Management Institute (FMI), established by the Ministry of Agriculture of the Czech Republic, has renewed their contract with Planet for a second year, adding access to surface reflectance basemaps, optimized for pixel accuracy and suited to calculate a variety of vegetation indices. Previously, with the aid of PlanetScope imagery, FMI was able to create a national public portal for stakeholders to review and respond to the bark beetle epidemic, as explained in our in-depth case study here.

Using maps in the portal that were created by leveraging Planet’s data, stakeholders were able to identify, survey and report all beetle-devastated areas nationwide, which allowed FMI to determine that 16,000 hectares (equal to €200 million) worth of timber were impacted by the infestation. FMI also discovered that over 90 percent of 55 randomly selected plots were declared to be at risk of spreading disease, with almost 20 percent of this impact unknown to the owner of the forest.

“Historically, a lack of recent data on a broad scale made it difficult for government to mitigate and understand the full scope of change and destruction,” says Peter Lukeš, a remote sensing scientist at FMI. “But thanks to Planet’s data, frequent observation in high spatial resolution allows us to monitor the spread of the bark beetle in real time, and provide objective information that is key for decision makers.”

Planet’s dataset also improved FMI’s workflow, delivering actionable insights at the highest frequency. Before gaining access to Planet’s data, FMI did their image processing manually, which required two people to spend an entire month putting together the bark beetle map.

“Planet saved FMI considerable time and resources,” Lukeš says, “allowing us to achieve our goal at unprecedented speed.”

In light of the study’s results, new legislation has been proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture to rezone forests to minimize disease and optimize timber harvesting.

“It’s impossible to save all the spruce trees and maintain status quo, though some can be saved using FMI’s timely monitoring of recent infestations,” says Lukeš. “What’s really significant is how our data can inform the Ministry of Agriculture so they can discern affected areas and decide where finances should be allocated for reforestation going forward.”

Over 50 percent of Czech Republic forests are Norwegian spruce, a favorite of the bark beetle. Not only are the Central European forests a source of income for the timber industry, they are also important for preserving the ecological functions like carbon storage, landscape cooling, water retention and avoiding soil erosion, not to mention the recreational and aesthetic aspects of nature.

That’s a two-fold problem, both commercially and ecologically. The spruce has the highest timber prices and the entire market is based on processing of spruce timber like sawmills and seedling plantations, says Lukeš. This was a main motivation for foresters to plant large spruce monocultures in Central Europe in the past. Also, compared to the few native spruce populations that exist in the mountains at high altitudes, the majority of managed spruce forests are growing in non-native environments in both low altitudes and low humidity/precipitation.

“We’re facing an unprecedented change in our forests, brought on by large-scale dieback of Norway Spruce due to bark beetle infestation—triggered by changing climate. A lot of work is ahead of us when it comes to stopping further spread of the beetle and planting diverse forests that are well-adapted for the future,” says Lukeš. “In coming years, we are looking forward to utilizing Planet’s data to explore monitoring of reforestation.”

For other examples of how Planet’s data is useful for forest management, download our eBook: Managing Forests Proactively with Satellite Imagery.

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