Watchers of the woods

UAlberta scientists team up with IBM to view carbon’s impact on the world's forests in real time.


(Edmonton) Scientists at the University of Alberta have teamed up with the IBM Alberta Centre for Advanced Studies to take environmental monitoring and data analysis to a whole new level. By blanketing sensitive environments with remote sensors that stream live data via satellite, the team is viewing whole forests in real time from their offices in the Faculty of Science at the U of A.

The intricate system of sensors and networks, called Enviro-Net, is  supported by IBM’s InfoSphere Streams software to quickly collect, correlate and analyze data as it arrives from more than 500 sensors implanted in some of the world’s most remote—and vulnerable—ecosystems.

This collaboration between scientists from the university and IBM’s T.J. Watson Laboratory is changing the environmental monitoring game for researchers—and eventually, policy-makers—with an unprecedented ability to predict environmental events such as forest fires and drought, and to apply insights to more accurately forecast how boreal and tropical forests are returning after deforestation and other industrial disturbances.

With monitoring sites set up around the world, including a new "super site" in Peace River that is considered one of the most advanced sites in Canada, the software provides real-time analysis for more than 10,000 data points per second from sensors measuring carbon levels and other environmental indicators such as relative humidity, temperature, soil moisture, atmospheric pressure and ambient noise from forests.

Project leader Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences will be demonstrating the speed of the analytics platform at the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, in late November.

The depth of insights now being produced has not previously been available in real time, says Sanchez-Azofeifa. “When I started this project four years ago, I had no idea how much data I would be generating, and we could not look at our data in a reasonable amount of time. It was taking something like six months to two years before we had usable insights. 

“Now, we can basically 'see' the forests breathing in real time."

Sanchez-Azofeifa, along with students at the U of A, will work with IBM to develop a simplified dashboard view of the data to make it easier to share and convey insights to decision-makers.

“Right now, there is an enormous amount of critical data produced by environmental monitors,” says Bernie Kollman, IBM’s vice-president, Public Sector Alberta. “The ability to quickly analyze that data and make informed decisions will have implications for us here in Alberta as researchers study the impact of oilsands extraction efforts. It will also help other policy-makers around the world support environmental stewardship.”

IBM awarded Sanchez-Azofeifa use of the software through the IBM Alberta Centre for Advanced Studies, which was formed with the Government of Alberta and Alberta Universities to enable strategic, multidisciplinary collaborations of mutual interest and benefit between the province’s research community and IBM's worldwide research and development staff, with an emphasis on projects analyzing “big data”—the quintillion bytes of data generated daily by a variety of sources.

UAlberta researchers are teaming up with IBM to visualize and predict environmental changes in real time. (Video: IBM Canada)