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October : ICFR’s Spatial Technology Platform

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29 October, 2021

ICFR's Spatial Technology Platform


Spatial modelling, risk assessment and attractive maps

Ilaria Germishuizen, ICFR

For those in the forestry sector, terms like GIS (geographic information systems) and remote sensing are now as familiar as silviculture terminology. As spatial technologies like these and geographic positioning systems have, over the past two decades, become intrinsically linked to forest management and research. As a result, today's foresters and forest managers will be just as "at home" interrogating and manipulating spatial technology data sets as they are at managing forestry logistics, with many finding it now inconceivable to imagine managing a natural resource without it.

The impact of spatial technology on forestry research has been equally transformative, enabling researchers to explore relationships between sites and productivity, evaluate and monitor the risk of pests and diseases, as well as developing climate change scenarios. These are just a few of the numerous research areas where spatial technologies have been applied to aid in the advancement of the forestry sector.

Spatial technologies are becoming an increasingly important tool in the forestry sector's response to both current and future biotic and abiotic challenges, including pest and disease control, climate change and sustainability that can limit productivity and global competitiveness. As a result, FSA funding was awarded to the ICFR to establish a Spatial Technology Platform, with the aim to secure ongoing spatial technology capacity - in the form of knowledge acquisition, skills and expertise - which will then be available for research projects and collaborative initiatives between the South African forestry industry and its academic partners.

Central to this platform is the spatial library housed at the ICFR. The library houses important national and global geodatasets needed for spatial projects, which are available upon request by FSA members, government and higher education institutes. These datasets include the global circulation models at varying spatial resolutions needed for climate change scenario modelling and weather datasets acquired annually from the South African Weather Services. The weather datasets consist of daily rainfall and temperature data for over 700 weather stations located in forestry areas from 1950 onwards.

An exciting project in the pipeline is the development of an online application, facilitating direct access to the weather database that has resulted from partnership between the ICFR, Forest and Agriculture Biotechnology Institute (FABI) and the Master in Information Technology (MIT) Programme at the University of Pretoria. Once developed, the App will enable FSA members to access basic visualisation and modelling functionalities using the weather datasets. Access to the App will be available via the Innovation Africa Information Hub, an initiative under the leadership of Prof Bernard Slippers, which is also currently in development.

ICFR's expertise and capacity in spatial technologies has been pivotal in many collaborative industry initiatives, including the Sirex noctilio Control Programme, the eucalypt canopy pests monitoring and the baboon damage impact project, that require the utilisation of sensitive company data. The platform and library currently play an important role in FABI's, FSA funded, Pest and Disease Database Project. This exciting, and long overdue, project aims to develop a central repository for the storage and access of forest pest and disease data that will be ultimately accessible to FSA members using an App with visualisation, analysis and modelling capacity via Innovation Africa Information Hub.


Beyond pests and diseases, the Spatial Technology platform has been, and still is, involved in several Forest Sector Innovation Fund (FSIF) projects that require the interpretation of responses across the forestry landscape, such as the investigation of the chemical composition of bark extracts under varying environmental conditions. Within the ICFR, the platform plays an important support role to other research projects and has led to exciting developments within the forest protection project. Within this project, there are currently plans to expand the testing of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for managing forests, including monitoring canopy damage and for the targeted dispensation of insecticide. The platform has also been actively involved in important national projects, participating in the development of the forestry component of National Bioenergy Atlas in 2020, a Department of Science and Technology initiative.

The transfer of spatial technologies skills and capacities is a core component of the platform and is secured through the mentorship and supervision of postgraduate students at various academic institutions, including Nelson Mandela University, Stellenbosch University and the University of KwaZulu Natal. The focus of the post-graduate projects encompasses many areas of forestry research, from the utility of remote sensing in monitoring forest health to forestry site classification and process-based models, to predict site productivity under current and future climate scenarios.

Looking at the growth of spatial technologies over the last twenty years and how they have become an integrated part of both forest management and research, it is hard to put a limit on where this technology could take us or try to predict what the next five years holds. It is certainly an exciting tool in the forestry toolkit, one with multiple practical and theoretical applications. It is also a technology that has and will impact the industry on many levels. At its most expansive, it will aid the industry to navigate the uncertainty surrounding climate change, new pest and disease threats on a more focused level and the production of ad hoc maps and data sets to help illustrate a report.

Whatever you need, be it climate change predictions to aid species selection or just an attractive map, contact the ICFR and enquire about how the Spatial Technology Platform could help you.

Source: Forestry South Africa / Forestry in Focus