Artificial intelligence can speed hurricane damage response

When hurricanes careen through Florida, they not only damage homes and businesses, they also take down forests and timber farms.

Assessing the extent of hurricane damage is essential for environmental management, salvaging logging operations, tree farms’ insurance estimates and climate change studies.

So far, it’s been a vexing puzzle.

Now, a combination of remote sensing and artificial intelligence can create preand post-hurricane 3D maps of forests to evaluate forest loss, according to Carlos Silva, assistant professor of quantitative forest science in the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries and Geomatics Sciences and director of the forest biometrics.

He uses satellites and lidar — a technology that involves lasers to collect data known as Light Detection and Ranging — and ground equipment to achieve this.

“Hurricanes pose a fundamental challenge for us in Florida,” Silva said. “The traditional way to assess the impact of hurricanes is basically going to the field, establishing plots and measuring trees.

“But if we’re thinking about large areas, it’s really time-consuming, therefore the traditional way of assessing impact of hurricanes on forest ecosystems is not efficient. We are in a new era for monitoring forests, thanks to these innovative remote-sensing and AI methods,” he said.

Data help emergency managers and environmental managers make fast, smart decisions in the aftermath of a hurricane, he said.

These data help them know which areas were most affected and need help immediately, as well as which would benefit from specialized action at a later time — such as where to do salvage logging operations.

Forests are deemed important because they cool temperatures and reduce pollution and electricity use. Kody Brock, a senior in Silva’s lab, said the maps can help forest managers and landowners alike react quickly to hurricane damage. “Hurricanes are only going to get worse and more frequent,” she said, “and we realize that in the field of forestry. Those are ecosystems we’re losing.” According to Colorado State University’s hurricane forecasting team, hurricane season 2024 is shaping up to be an active one.

The team is forecasting 23 storms. Of that, 11 will be hurricanes and five will be Category 3 or stronger. Silva and his lab used NASA satellites, specifically the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) satellite and the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2), to scan trees on the ground, with a laser pulse that sends back data on the structure of the forest, he said.

Additional data are collected with ground-based lidar scanners attached to all-terrain vehicles and a backpack apparatus to make high-resolution 3D maps of the forest.

The lidar and imagery data from satellites and ground-based sensors are all combined into a web-based mapping platform that shows a comprehensive picture of impacts to forest ecosystems from Hurricane Ian.

The data coming back from these sources includes the weight of trees before and after hurricanes, as well as 3D images of trees that can spot small changes like individual broken tree limbs, he said.

“There was no way to combine data from different sources – until now,” Silva said of his lab’s innovations.

Silva’s research is funded by a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) through the Rapid Response to Extreme Weather Events Across Food and Agricultural Systems program.