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Developing a spatial database of fire, harvesting, and road disturbances in Ontario’s boreal forest

Developing a spatial database of fire, harvesting, and road disturbances in Ontario’s boreal forest

Tarmo Remmel

Ontario’s boreal forest is a large and heterogeneous area. Not only is it the most extensive of all vegetation types in Ontario (about 45 million hectares and representing 50% of the province), but it also includes at least 7 ecoregions due to its geo-climatic variability. Almost all of this boreal forest area, nearly 30 million hectares, is in Ontario’s managed forest landscape known as the Area of the Undertaking (AOU).    

The boreal portion of the AOU, and the remote areas north of it, are not heavily populated, with only about 800,000 inhabitants or 0.9 people per square kilometre. The region is sparsely developed by settlements except for a few urban areas and sporadic townships and farms, so the forest cover is not subject to urbanization and industrialization pressures. However, this region is subject to cyclic broad scale natural (fire) and anthropogenic (timber harvesting) disturbances.  

In a 2020 Technical Report with the Ontario Forest Research Institute, the research team released a spatial database of boreal forest fire and harvesting disturbances for the boreal area of Ontario’s Area of the Undertaking. Pixels deemed to be disturbed on satellite images are identified and mapped as points for the 1972–2019 period; complex decisions regarding polygonal boundary placement are not within the scope of this work. Each point is also coded with an ensemble measure of confidence. Varied mapping results are possible by controlling the level of confidence desired.


Wildfire is the most significant natural disturbance (by measures of frequency, extent, and intensity) in the region, followed by windthrow and floods that cause sporadic and infrequent disruptions of forest cover in relatively small extents. Of the anthropogenic disturbances in the boreal forest portion of the AOU, the most prominent is timber harvesting where large extents of forest cover are removed, followed by the related expansion of the access road network.  

In light of these developments, Professor Tarmo Remmel’s core research and teaching interests have focused on the shape and pattern; accuracy and uncertainty; and boreal forest disturbance analyses. He integrates remote sensing, GIS, and spatial analyses to better understand processes affecting the physical environment. His research team of graduate and undergraduate students explore applications within disturbed boreal environments, develop software tools and statistical methods for improving the assessment of spatial accuracy and uncertainty. They use and produce Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to disseminate their methods and make them available for systematic peer review and validation while facilitating community adoption. 

Mapping forest landscape patterns

The main goal of the research program is to provide solutions for mapping dynamic and complex entities, specifically boreal wildfire disturbances, their associated residual vegetation patches, and recovery. The research work scrutinizes the spatial patterns of burned and unburned patches associated with boreal wildfire events with the aim of understanding disturbance processes and recovery at multiple scales. Their work connects with related research that focuses on the morphology of residual vegetation patches. The research team, recently released a book that covers a broad spectrum of existing and emerging innovative methods for mapping forested landscapes (Link: 

GIScience underpins Remmel’s passion for physical geography and the understanding of spatial patterns. He mainly teaches courses related to geomatics, specifically remote sensing, GIS, and statistics. His teaching goals link directly with his teaching philosophy: to inspire independent thinking, develop problem-solving skills, and train critical and open thinkers. He works to convey his excitement towards science through the inclusion of case studies and illustrations to which students may relate. Using examples from personal research, the media, and student backgrounds, he strives to paint a vivid and stimulating portrait of GIScience, problem solving, and geographic analysis. The integration of theories with illustrative examples acts to personalize the learning experience and provides tangible relevance to theoretical concepts.