Zombie Forests: Mapping Tree Migration with R Shiny
Our trees are dying. These days, the soft south-wind wafts only the sad notes of a forever-changed landscape. Our beloved forests are changing. And the faint murmurs from the pine tops that graced Aldrich’s ear, are vanishing; they are being replaced with the creaking groans of rising zombie forests.
But there is hope. The burden of taking large-scale action rests on the shoulders of decision-makers, including those in positions of power and influence such as policy-makers and foresters. The responsibility of ensuring that decisions are data-driven.. well that rests on us.
- What Are Zombie Forests?
- What Are the Risks of Zombie Forests?
- Using Data Science to Stop the Spread
- How We Use Shiny to Prevent the Rise of Zombie Forests
Zombie Forests: Dawn of the Deadwood
Zombie forests – a creative, evocative term sprouting from one of many significant changes brought about by our changing climate. These forests are characterized by large numbers of dead or dying trees that remain standing outside of their rapidly shifting climate zones.
Setting the Stage for Destruction
Extreme weather conditions and temperature shift, resulting in warmer conditions, have left many of our forests off-balance. Unable to keep pace with the moving front, some tree spcies are struggling to surive in the new climate.
Hot and dry summers, warm winters with less snow, mismatched blooming and insect emergence, and frequent extreme weather events. These are just a few factors impacting the functioning of many tree species, limiting their ability to grow and reproduce.
Future Forests – a Shiny Zombie Tree Survival Guide
For my fellow hikers, set foot out on the Continental Divide and you’ll come across these wide, desolate zombie forests comprised of pines.
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These trees will remain standing, often for years or decades, and do pose a significant risk to both human safety and the environment. However, there is research showing hope for some tree species and a web application that makes it easy to explore and plan ahead. The app’s official title is Future Forests, but for our purposes today – it’s a Zombie Tree Survival Guide.
What Are Zombie Forests?
Zombie forests are forested areas that are in a state of decay or decline. They are the result of a combination of factors – mostly human-induced – such as rising global temperatures, changes in precipitation, and the spreading of invasive pests and diseases.
These factors, either individually or combined, weaken trees and make them vulnerable to additional stressors. Ultimately, this leads to large-scale die-offs. And as we’ve seen in the Sierra Nevada, changing climate thresholds for some species are hitting hard.
What Are the Risks of Zombie Forests?
Instead of falling to the ground, many of these trees remain standing. This standing deadwood is both positive and negative. Small amounts of standing deadwood creates habitat and resources for a variety of animals, plants, and fungi. But at a large scale it creates a dangerous, unmanageable, and unstable environment.
Beyond the growing risk of intense wildfires, zombie forests impact biodiversity, create excessive runoff – damaging soils and surface water quality, and reduce carbon sequestration.
Using Data Science and R Shiny to Stop the Spread
To help address the challenges posed by our changing climate, a group of researchers at IDPAN teamed up with data scientists and R Shiny developers at Appsilon to develop the Future Forests app.
Predicting the Future of Forests
To better understand the impact of climate change on forest biodiversity, scientists typically use species distribution models. By implementing climate change scenarios based on projections of future greenhouse gas emissions, these models can predict where species will be able to thrive and where they will struggle to survive.
While these models are important, the results are often difficult to present in a way that is accessible to the general public or even expert audiences. A solution to this problem is the use of interactive data visualizations, tools that present the insights locked within the data in a clear and accessible way.
Shiny dashboards allow you to create interactive yet engaging visual tools that help translate complex scientific analysis into easy-to-understand conclusions.
About the Future Forests App
Appsilon built Future Forests using R Shiny, a web application framework for R and Python. It includes a suite of climate scenario models for 2070, with predicted habitat zones for 12 tree species in Europe.
You can explore the live app and see what tree species to plant for your future climate.
These modeled scenarios and the research performed by IDPAN are one of many solutions. The Shiny app is the delivery system, taking complex problems and making them available to the public.
How We Use Shiny to Prevent the Rise of Zombie Forests
While the concept of zombie forests may sound like something out of a horror movie, the reality is that it’s a serious problem that requires urgent attention. Fortunately, technology can play a crucial role in helping us address this issue. In our case, that technology is Shiny.
One of the key advantages of Future Forests is its accessibility. While traditional modeling techniques may require specialized expertise and technical knowledge, Future Forests presents the information in a user-friendly way that any user can click and explore. This makes it an invaluable tool for engaging a wide range of stakeholders in the fight against zombie forests.
The information available allows users to predict where a species may lose its optimal habitat and plan in advance, actions to reduce the loss of economic opportunity and future growth.
Who Is the Future Forests App For?
It’s up to policy-makers, foresters, farmers, or any natural resource manager to plan crop species compositions, and shape future forests.
Knowledge of the uncertain duration of particular species can guide decisions for alternative forest type proposals in a given habitat, and for refining silvicultural principles.
Don’t Fight the Zombie Tree Horde, Prevent It!
But in making science accessible, and casting the seed of knowledge via Shiny, we hope everyone can plant ahead, even at a local scale.
By giving users a glimpse into the future, Future Forests can help users make data-driven decisions about their trees. Policymakers can use the information to determine policies for protecting natural resources. Conservationists can learn where to focus their preservation efforts. Silviculturalists can decide which trees to plant and where. Neighbors can understand the benefits of having trees in their communities.
Users can tailor their searches to their specific needs and areas/species of interest, and explore policy or prioritize business strategies accordingly.
Ultimately, our Shiny apps help make better, data-driven decisions. With Future Forests we can cultivate more appropriate forests for future climates. In turn, we can mitigate the rising tide of Zombie Forests.
Zombie Forests, Climate Change, and Creating Hope with Data Science
We find value and trust in the scientific process. Climate change and its effects are here, but we can still mitigate and adapt. We can take scientific findings, apply our knowledge in our field, and connect decision-makers with the data.
We hope our tools, like Future Forests, can be used to prevent mass, ill-advised plantings and speed up the recovery of our planet.
Whether or not zombie forests can be saved, we can at least plant the right seeds for recovery.
If you’re interested in learning more about Data4Good and how we can help apply data science, R/Shiny development, or AI/Machine Learning to your project, please contact us.