How the “Internet of Trees” Can Save Our Forests 

March 7, 2024
Carsten Brinkschulte
Co-founder & CEO, Dryad Networks

Wildfires are catastrophic. They cause up to 20% of global carbon emissions, threaten biodiversity, and generate $394–$893 billion per year in damages in the United States alone. In addition, climate change is making wildfires more severe, frequent, and dangerous. 

This is particularly true in Wildland–Urban Interfaces (WUI) — the areas where the wilderness meets human development. This is where the majority of human-caused wildfires start and where fires can quickly turn into an urban conflagration, like what we’ve recently seen in Lahaina and Valparaiso

There’s no shortage of examples of wildfire devastation. In 2023 alone, Canada lost over 18 million hectares of forest to a catastrophic series of fire events. That’s more than all 11 million hectares of forest we have in my home country of Germany. The carbon emissions from these fires also more than doubled that of previous years, totaling more than 355 megatonnes of carbon. 

Disastrous fires like these will become our new normal, compounding year after year. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The painful yet hopeful truth is that these wildfires are avoidable. 

How? Listen to the trees. We need to bring the forest online and build a communications network so we are able to monitor vast and remote forests. This will not only enable forest managers to detect wildfires early and make megafires in the WUI a thing of the past, but it will also protect and enhance overall forest health.

Preventing wildfires with ultra-early detection requires the “internet of trees”

When it comes to preventing wildfires, time is the most valuable asset. Some forest managers have started deploying cameras and satellites to try and detect wildfires early, but these methods still aren’t fast enough. 

Cameras, for instance, detect a fire in 1–3 hours and often cannot spot it until the smoke rises above the tree canopy. By that time, the fire on the forest floor is already quite significant. Satellites take upwards of 3 hours to detect a fire and can only do so once it's already spreading. 

These detection methods each have their advantages and play a crucial role in predicting fire spread and tracking response efforts once a fire emerges, but they aren’t the most effective tools for early detection. 

Sensors offer the quickest and most reliable method of snuffing out a wildfire. Sensors can be placed below the tree canopy and identify fires by “smelling” the gas compounds associated with a certain forest fire. 

This means sensors can detect a wildfire within minutes of ignition and often before a flame has even broken out. Detecting fires this early can prevent megafires by giving authorities crucial time to extinguish a wildfire threat while it’s still easy to do so. 

For this to work, and for authorities to be alerted to a wildfire threat from a sensor deep in the forest, there needs to be some form of communication. But typical mobile networks do not extend deep into the forest, meaning we need to build a communications network for the forest, or something I like to call the “internet of trees.” 

This has never been done before because bringing extremely remote landscapes online requires overcoming tremendous commercial and technical challenges. Building a traditional communications network, like the ones we use for our phones, costs billions of dollars, something that simply isn’t feasible from a business perspective for forest and wildfire monitoring. This network will need to be extremely low-cost in order to be deployed at scale. 

On top of that, from a technical standpoint, communications networks transmit information between a series of communication towers, or base stations, via radio waves. But water absorbs radio waves, which reduces network connectivity, and we all know trees are full of water. Therefore, a network in a forest will need a high concentration of base stations in order to provide full network coverage. 

Creating the “app store” of the forest 

Clearly, bringing the forest online at scale and at cost is a huge challenge, but it’s one worth solving. Building this communications network in the forest will allow authorities to monitor the forest and respond to wildfires at the earliest possible moment. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This communications network also opens up a whole suite of applications for protecting the natural world, an “app store” of the forest that utilizes this network to allow the trees to talk. 

If trees could talk, they could tell us about everything from detecting chainsaws to prevent illegal logging, to health and growth monitoring of forests, including measuring soil moisture, tree growth, and water consumption. 

This is the future of the “internet of trees.” It will provide continuous monitoring of forests, offering real-time insights and enabling rapid responses to potential threats. We’ll have new, timely insights into tree growth, tree mortality, and outbreaks of pests and diseases, arming ourselves with data to ensure the longevity of the world’s forests. 

The time to act is now

This is a lofty vision, but it’s attainable. We can’t afford not to put this vision into action to protect our forests, starting with wildfire detection. Wildfires are the most acute threat to our planet’s forests, and to our collective well-being. 

Even beyond the destruction, widespread air quality warnings, and carbon emissions caused by wildfires, these fires are also an economic burden. Take California as an example. In the 2021–22 fire season, California spent roughly $1.2 billion on emergency wildfire suppression. The state could deploy ultra-early wildfire detection sensors for 33x less, a savings of roughly $1 billion. 

And according to the Moore Foundation, if California firefighters could achieve just a 15-minute reduction in average response times, that could generate $3.5–$8.2 billion in economic benefits. Building a communications network in the forest would provide the accurate and timely insights and alerts necessary to make these figures a reality. 

We have the tools to put an end to megafires. We just need to act, and act fast.

Carsten Brinkschulte
Co-founder & CEO, Dryad Networks
Carsten Brinkschulte is the CEO of Dryad Networks, a company that provides ultra-early detection systems of wildfires. Carsten is a serial entrepreneur with 20 years experience in building mobile network infrastructure companies (previously Movirtu, Core Network Dynamics).
About the
Who Will Speak For The Trees?

At a time when human economic development is prioritized over the needs of nature, the Who Will Speak for the Trees? series features top reforestation leaders with a broad range of restoration expertise, including climate tech, monitoring, science, finance, media, and more. These diverse voices offer expert viewpoints to instill confidence in how humanity can support nature to deliver a forested future for all living things on Earth. Join us for this ongoing series to learn more about the science of reforestation and how restoring ecosystems is part of a comprehensive climate solution.

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