Tropical forest are large, complex and easy to get lost in—which isn’t helpful if you’re trying to study them. Now, scientists are using these amazing immersive mathematical models to understand the intricacies of tree canopies around the world.
The team, from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, has been using sphere packing models to approximate how trees occupy space within the dense forests found in locations such as Panama and Sri Lanka. The models assume that tree canopies don’t overlap—like packing oranges into a box—and then tries to fit tress of different shapes and sizes into the space.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t take into factors like growth, mortality, light, water or soil nutrients, the model has been show to provide surprisingly accurate predictions of forest make-up. Analysing the forest in this way also reveals how efficiently tress fill the space—and it turns out to be not very. The packing density of the tree crowns in the forests the team considered averaged just 15 to 20 percent by volume, which means there’s quite a lot of spare space in there, however dense it may look.