January 2013 - Virtual Forest: RWTH scientists conduct research on windfall areas


Windfall areas are the result of storms that bend or uproot trees. In 2007, storm Kyrill toppled and uprooted trees in an area of about 123,500 acres, resulting in damage of approximately 1,5 billion dollars. The damage is still visible today, as only about 55 percent of the affected sites have been reforested; for the other areas, reforestation through natural regeneration is hoped for. The Research Institute for Ecosystem Analysis and Assessment (gaiac), an RWTH-affiliated institute, is currently developing a simulation model to represent the natural regeneration of these areas. This model is a contribution to the “Virtual Forest NRW” project which receives 170,000 Euros in funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Local Conditions Are Decisive

In the future, due to the increase in extreme weather events, development and regeneration processes of windfall areas shall be integrated into conventional forestry practice. Of central importance is the regeneration of forest communities with their diversity of species and forms. The prognosis of how a windfall develops is difficult even for experts, as the local conditions such as surrounding vegetation and the population history may play an important role in this context. The Aachen simulation model is to integrate and weigh the diverse factors and processes, which is made possible by a combination of classical methods and state-of-the art techniques. Data from long-term intensive monitoring, remote sensing data collected by aircraft and satellites, as well as geo-referenced field data are being used and analyzed to obtain accurate information on a certain location. Subsequently, the results are interactively visualized, providing the user with a prognosis of the natural regeneration of the forest.

Dr. Silvana Siehoff, research assistant at the Institute for Ecosystem Analysis and Assessment, exaplains: “The simulation of the natural regeneration of windfall sites will provide us with valuable insights on how to deal with extreme weather events in our forests. If it becomes possible to integrate the natural regeneration of forest with silvicultural activities, this will facilitate the recovery of natural forest communities and help to reduce the economic damage from storms in the forest.”

The Virtual Forest Project

The Virtual Forest project is a collaboration of eight partner institutions, with the RWTH Insitute for Man-Machine Interaction (MMI) in a coordinating role. The head of the institute, Professor Jürgen Roßmann, explains : “Forest resources should be used in a sustainable way, both ecologically and economically. Due to technology transfer from aeronautics and terrestrial robotics, it has become possible to obtain up-to-date information for forestry and ecological questions and problems in a cost-effective way. This helps to make the right decisions in forest development, also taking into account climate change impacts.” Activities at the MMI currently focus on an integrated large-scale forest information system, which provides full, up-to-date representations of the NRW forests. On the basis of existing geo- and remote sensing data, tree species maps, stocking information, and digital “business cards” for the approximately 240 million trees in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Dr. Silvana Siehoff, Arno Bücken