Cutting-edge technology for adaptation, production, and monitoring of poplar

ProPopulus Team

Poplar, scientifically known as Populus, is a tree that has played an essential role in the ecology and economy of the Bierzo region in northwestern Spain. In addition to its importance for timber production, poplar has become a crucial subject of study for climate change adaptation.

At the Ponferrada campus of the University of León, several innovative projects are underway to ensure the health and sustainability of poplar plantations.

Adaptation of poplars to climate change: Populus Adapt project

One of the most notable projects is “Populus Adapt,” an initiative to understand and improve poplars’ ability to adapt to changing climate conditions. This project focuses on research and knowledge transfer about climate change adaptation of commercial poplar clones (Populus x spp.), evaluating various clones’ water stress resistance levels, and exploring possible strategies to enhance their response.

The project is the result of an agreement signed by the University of León, through the DRACONES research group of the Ponferrada Campus, in collaboration with the ULE Tech-Circular Chair, the Fundación Ciudad de la Energía (CIUDEN), the Public Company of Infrastructures and Environment of Castilla y León, S.A. (SOMACYL), a public company linked to the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Territorial Planning of the Junta de Castilla y León, and the companies Bosques y Ríos, specializing in poplar plantation and management, and ID Forest, focused on forest biotechnology.

The project is of great importance to the forestry sector, especially in the context of climate change. It aligns with one of the priorities highlighted at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), as it promotes sustainable wood production for decarbonization.

The “Populus Adapt” project is essential for the Bierzo region, where poplar plantations are common. Poplars have a fast growth cycle and are highly efficient at absorbing CO2, making them an ideal option for mitigating climate change effects.

In the case of poplar plantations, their contribution to climate change mitigation and the development of a neutral economy is not only due to their net carbon fixation capacity but also to the role of derived products that store carbon outside the forest.

Moreover, providing information on climate change adaptation strategies to the poplar value chain (nurseries, plantation and poplar grove management companies, current and potential poplar growers, and the processing industry) and forest managers, such as selecting the right clone and using mycorrhizae (association between fungi and poplars), promotes successful management of existing plantations.

Technological innovation in poplar monitoring

In addition to efforts in adaptation and production, the Ponferrada campus of the University of León is also at the forefront of using advanced technologies for poplar monitoring. In collaboration with the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, students and professors have implemented an artificial intelligence and satellite system to monitor threats faced by poplar plantations.

This innovative system allows early detection of problems such as pests, diseases, and water stress, facilitating a quick and effective response to mitigate damage.

The research, which has been carried out for two years, has converted Sentinel 2 satellite images, updated every five days, into models that allow the measurement of chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanins in poplar leaves without using traditional field sensors, significantly simplifying the work. Artificial intelligence has been used for this.

Over these two years, it has been verified that the results obtained with this model match reality, comparing them with traditional sensor data. “There is a degree of correspondence of more than 90 percent,” says Flor Álvarez Taboada, professor at the School of Agricultural and Forestry Engineering of Bierzo.

The ability to efficiently and accurately monitor poplar plantations not only helps protect the economic investment in these plantations but also contributes to environmental sustainability. Early threat detection allows managers to make informed decisions to protect the trees and ensure their healthy growth.

Digital twins to measure wood volume

Besides the Populus Adapt project, the DRACONES research group at the Ponferrada Campus of the University of León has managed to create digital twins of poplar plantations using 3D technology. The objective of this project is to more accurately estimate the wood volume.

The DRACONES Research Group, from the Ponferrada Campus of the University of León (ULE). Image: ULE

This innovation is part of a proof of concept (PoC) carried out in collaboration with the French company Garnica Samazan and is part of the European consortium DIGIS3, which seeks to optimize the use of these plantations.

The company Garnica applies methods developed by the ULE research group to estimate wood volume using laser technology in various clonal plantations. Meanwhile, researchers from the Ponferrada Campus collect data in poplar groves using a portable laser scanner that captures more than 300,000 points per tree.

This allows each tree to be reconstructed in 3D, creating a detailed digital twin that facilitates the precise calculation of total wood volume, height, diameter, and wood volume to obtain logs with specific characteristics required by the industry.

This information is essential to know the available wood quantity and plan how to work the tree before felling and processing in the factory, optimizing industrial processes and ensuring maximum wood yield.

Commitment to Innovation

Poplar is a vital resource that contributes to local economies, environmental sustainability, and the fight against climate change.

The projects at the Ponferrada campus of the University of León demonstrate a commitment to innovation and research to ensure that poplar plantations continue to thrive in the face of climatic and environmental challenges.

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