Hundreds of millions of trees in the Sahara Desert
An impressive discovery was made possible thanks to Artificial Intelligence: 1.8 billion solitary trees were mapped and cataloged in a desert area in Africa.
Science at the service of biodiversity
Using thousands of images recorded by Digital Globe satellites, a group of researchers has succeeded in counting individual trees. In their approach, this group of international scientists used a specific type of Artificial Intelligence (AI) called Deep Learning (DL). This technique is based on an artificial neural network. It leads to the creation of algorithms capable of learning and progressing autonomously. This method, commonly used by giant digital companies for facial and voice recognition systems, as well as in the field of robotics, has allowed computers to identify only the trees whose top is larger than three square meters so as not to confuse them with ordinary bushes.
A semi-arid belt
The remarkable number of trees in the world’s largest hot desert, which covers an area of 1.3 million square kilometers in northwest Africa, has exceeded scientists’ expectations. Far from being a forest, this sparse vegetation includes more than 1.8 billion trees. With this discovery, the forest cover, defined as the average number of trees per hectare, has significantly increased from 0.7 to 13 in the area.
The studied area represents only 20% of the Sahara and Sahel. It crosses Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali. Underneath this hostile region of the world lies a water table that supplies multiple oases. This water table is subject to strong human overuse but manages somehow to renew itself.
A presence that is beneficial for the ecosystem
The discovery of these solitary trees in the Sahara Desert allows scientists to better understand the vegetation and to study its role in improving the ecosystem.
Indeed, the presence of these trees contributes to the absorption of carbon dioxide contained in the air and mitigates desertification.
“They are crucial for livelihoods, they fertilize the soil, resulting in higher yields and provide shade and shelter for humans and animals. They generate income and are essential for nutrition” – Martin Brandt, lead author of the study behind this discovery.
This unprecedented artificial intelligence technique will eventually allow the counting of all trees for a better understanding of the ecology on a global scale.
Sources: Le Point; Le Monde; Science et Vie
Photo Credits: Pic Jumbo
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