Listen to the trees – can AI unlock forest secrets in the battle against climate change?

Smart sensors in forests could help give us a picture of their health and ability to capture carbon

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Alicia Charennat talks to the trees. Well not quite but she certainly listens to what they are saying.

She’s the young French woman behind German-based ecosystem intelligence company, foldAI. It has spent the last year developing tools to monitor the health and functionality of forests.

“We always measure the value of the forest in wood terms or timber but not in the way it captures water for us, or it cleans the air, the incredible animals that live there, the soil, all these things that are very valuable,” says Alicia.

Her idea is simple, take the technology behind smart meters and wearable tech and place them on trees to monitor forests. Then using AI, her team build up a picture of the forest ecosystem.

She tells me: “Our dream is to be the tree whisperer, you know trees communicating it’s not a fairy tale. We think with AI and machine learning and all this intelligence, we can get insights.”

So do trees talk?

Well no and yes. By placing a system of nodes with sensors on trees around two test forests, the foldAI team can monitor humidity, temperature, light and volatile chemicals released by the trees when under stress. These give clues to the state of the forest.

Alicia says they have used the recent heatwave to monitor what happens and incredibly the trees desperate for water, release special compounds which are then detected by bark beetles. The beetles then fly to the stressed tree and begin to attack it, knowing its defences are weak.

Climate change

The other knowledge the scientists are revealing is how effective trees are at carbon sequestration. And Alicia believes climate smart forestry will be vital in the future.

“By 2050 forests in Europe could sequester 441 megatons of CO2 this is the eqivalent of France and Italy’s CO2 emissions.

“We want to say this is what a healthy forest looks like, so what should we do as human beings to create this healthy state in future forests?”

The company is in its infancy but Alicia is hopeful it will gain more momentum and funds, to gather data from many more forests and not just in Europe.

“We would like to create a big database of world forests eventually. When someone asks me what should we do about climate change or biodiversity loss?

“I just want to say stay curious, learn, watch, observe nature and we will find answers.”