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How connected forests are helping fight climate change

Autumn has taken on a new meaning in Europe this year, as colourful leaves and waning daylight are accompanied by urgent messages about our planet’s future ahead of COP26.

While some of the world’s most influential leaders prepare to discuss solutions and accelerate progress, we’ve been thinking about those silent supporters of climate action, working tirelessly to protect the air we breathe and providing us with the resources we need to survive – our forests.

Here, we explore what our forests have given us – from life-changing medicines to places of solitude – and how, using Internet of Things (IoT) technology, we can give back to them.

When data grows on trees

What if trees could tell us how to beat climate change?

Through Vodafone UK’s partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Forest Research, we're turning this quirky idea into a reality - by using technology to monitor the role trees play in tackling global warming.

Measuring tree growth enables scientists to estimate how trees absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere – but forests are often located in remote areas, which limits research possibilities. Using IoT technology, researchers can monitor areas of forest which are often inaccessible or too costly to reach.

Specialist sensors have been attached to trees in two forests and are connected via Vodafone’s leading Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) network. Data is collected and transmitted to Defra and Forest Research, where advanced analytics assess the impact of temperature, humidity and soil moisture on tree growth and function.

“This innovative, collaborative project has the potential to transform the way we are able to collect and analyse data, and to reduce the need for frequent site visits, especially at remote rural locations,” said Matthew Wilkinson, Research Scientist at Forest Research. “The project will also help us to gather more data, which is critical to targeting efforts to measure the contribution of individual trees to climate change.”

The three-month trial is now under way in Forestry England’s Alice Holt forest, near Farnham in Surrey, and Harwood forest, near Rothbury in Northumberland. It is the first of its kind in the UK.

Defra and Forest Research will use the results to inform policy makers and the public of how the changing environment impacts tree growth and the huge benefits that trees can provide by storing carbon.

Guardians of the forest

Meanwhile, over in Romania, the world’s first “smart forest” has been created.

The country has faced illegal deforestation for years. As this crime often takes place in rural and remote areas, a huge challenge has been identifying where it is happening and intervening before it’s too late. To help navigate this, Vodafone created IoT devices called “guardians” which, equipped with acoustic sensors, can pinpoint exactly where trees are being destroyed.

The guardians “listen” to the sounds from the forest and send the captured data to a cloud platform, where the AI recognises the specific sounds of logging. The system, which uses Vodafone Romania’s Supernet network, sends real-time alerts with geolocation to an app installed on forest administrators’ or rangers’ phones, so they can intervene immediately.

“We will never have enough rangers to fully protect our forests,” said Cătălin Buliga, Chief Technology Officer, Vodafone Romania. “But we can have enough digital guardians to detect and notify us as soon as there is a real danger of illegal deforestation.”

Protecting livelihoods in rural areas

By protecting trees, we are helping the planet fight climate change. But there’s another reason we should all care about preserving forests. The World Bank estimates that for rural people living near forests, as much as 22% of their income comes from timber and non-timber forest resources, a contribution larger than wage labour, livestock or self-owned businesses. 

In learning about forests and protecting them from harm, we are supporting millions of rural people globally, who live near forests and depend on them for their livelihoods.

Humans have been using trees for thousands of years to improve our lives. Isn’t it time we gave something back?

  • Innovation
  • Planet
  • Data
  • Digital services
  • Connectivity
  • COP26
  • IoT
  • SDGs
  • Technology
  • Sustainability

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