Unleashing Treezilla: a ‘monster map’ of Britain’s trees

We know roughly how many trees there are in the forests, woodlands, and around the countryside, but nobody really knows how many trees there are in urban areas. This is the question that we want to answer...
Professor Jonathan Silvertown
The Open University’s Professor Jonathan Silvertown explains how Treezilla, an ambitious new citizen science project, will facilitate investigations into the state of Britain’s trees...

Treezilla has been unleashed! Well, perhaps ‘launched’ is a more appropriate description. Either way, this new Open University-led citizen science project has the ambitious goal of mapping every tree in Britain.

‘Treezilla: the monster map of trees’ is a database with the potential to represent both the legacy and future of Britain's trees. Its creators are confident that information provided by users will enable scientists to conduct new investigations into issues such as tree disease, the extent to which trees contribute to the ecosystem, and how climate change affects tree growth and health.

The Forestry Commission estimates that there are 3.8 billion trees in forests and woodlands around Great Britain, and a further 123 million trees elsewhere in the countryside. However, there exists no overall estimate in relation to urban trees or those located on private estates. Treezilla hopes to fill in the blanks by enlisting the help of local authorities and individual users.

As data is inputted into Treezilla, a comprehensive map of Britain’s trees will begin to develop. In turn, researchers will gain access to a wealth of information with the potential to facilitate their studies.

Of course, trees capture carbon dioxide (CO2), lower the risk of flooding, reduce buildings’ energy use, and improve air quality in cities. In addition to collating detailed information about the locations, species, and health of Britain’s trees, Treezilla will calculate the monetary value of the ecosystem services that trees provide.

In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, Jonathan Silvertown, Professor of Ecology at The Open University, explained more about this exciting new resource and discussed some of the benefits that a tree-related map of this magnitude might offer…

Treezilla has the grand ambition of mapping every tree in Britain. Do you have any idea of how long it might take to achieve this feat?
In truth, this is more of an ambition than an expectation. We know roughly how many trees there are in the forests, woodlands, and around the countryside, but nobody really knows how many trees there are in urban areas. This is the question that we want to answer, and to this end, we are adopting a two-pronged approach.

Firstly, we plan to work with local authorities so that we can input their data into the Treezilla system. This has already started to happen. Secondly, we want citizen scientists to fill in any missing details. Mapping every tree in Britain is the ultimate objective, but it is also a mammoth undertaking. Essentially, we want to map every tree that we possibly can.

Eventually, we would like to produce a single map of Britain’s trees. At present, there are probably between 400 and 500 separate maps relating to trees in different parts of the country. With the help of authorities and individual users, we hope to create just one comprehensive map that can be used by professionals and members of the general public alike.

What types of information can Treezilla offer when it comes to the monetary benefits provided by urban trees?
Treezilla’s software estimates how much CO2 has been captured, the extent to which flood risk has been reduced, improvements to air quality, etc. It uses these estimates to calculate the monetary value of the trees in a given area. For instance, using local authority data, we have mapped over 24,000 trees in the Walsall district. In turn, Treezilla has calculated £1,514,133 of associated benefits per year.

I should point out that this software was predominantly designed to provide estimates for urban areas. A tree in a forest will affect the ecosystem in a similar way to a tree in London. However, the value of flood mitigation in a forest is not equal to that of preventing a flood outside Victoria Station.

How might a map of this magnitude aid research into tree disease and the ways in which climate change affects trees?
If you are concerned about a particular disease, you might wish to answer certain questions. How many of this type of tree are there? Where are they? How big are they? You might even ask users to go out and check the statuses of affected species. This would be one way of gathering pertinent information extremely quickly. The more data you collect, the quicker you can estimate risk.

In terms of climate change, different tree species are suited to different climates. Researchers have developed niche models that demonstrate the climatic boundaries of various tree species. In combination with these models, data from Treezilla would enable you to explore future scenarios. For example, you could determine how many trees are located in areas that are likely to become climatically unsuitable, and develop tailored guides to planting. This would allow you to identify the species that are most vulnerable to climate change, and the best candidates with which to replace them once they're gone.

What type of information will individual users be able to provide?
There are between 20 and 30 fields in the full database. These cover the basic information for any tree: Where is it? How big is it? What condition is it in?

In addition to being able to add trees, users can supplement existing data. In some cases, for example, trees have been mapped from the air. However, there is often no follow-up work conducted on the ground. Even so, this is a phenomenal starting point. An aerial map might not be able to tell you much about individual tree species, but it can tell you a lot about where trees are. From here, citizen scientists can visit the locations in question to help fill in the blanks.

We are hoping that people get into Treezilla in a big way, and we’re committed to pursuing this project over the coming years. This isn’t going to be a short process; we cannot build a comprehensive map of Britain’s trees overnight. Even so, I think that the potential of this tool is clear to see.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at some tree-related citizen science, check out Treezilla.org and start mapping today...



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