Early detection of a tree pathogen using airborne remote sensing

Erin Weingarten, Roberta E. Martin, Richard Flint Hughes, Nicholas R. Vaughn, Ethan Shafron, Gregory P. Asner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Native forests of Hawaiʻi Island are experiencing an ecological crisis in the form of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD), a recently characterized disease caused by two fungal pathogens in the genus Ceratocystis. Since approximately 2010, this disease has caused extensive mortality of Hawaiʻi's keystone endemic tree, known as ʻōhiʻa (Metrosideros polymorpha). Visible symptoms of ROD include rapid browning of canopy leaves, followed by death of the tree within weeks. This quick progression leading to tree mortality makes early detection critical to understanding where the disease will move at a timescale feasible for controlling the disease. We used repeat laser-guided imaging spectroscopy (LGIS) of forests on Hawaiʻi Island collected by the Global Airborne Observatory (GAO) in 2018 and 2019 to derive maps of foliar trait indices previously found to be important in distinguishing between ROD-infected and healthy ʻōhiʻa canopies. Data from these maps were used to develop a prognostic indicator of tree stress prior to the visible onset of browning. We identified canopies that were green in 2018, but became brown in 2019 (defined as “to become brown”; TBB), and a corresponding set of canopies that remained green. The data mapped in 2018 showed separability of foliar trait indices between TBB and green ʻōhiʻa, indicating early detection of canopy stress prior to the onset of ROD. Overall, a combination of linear and non-linear analyses revealed canopy water content (CWC), foliar tannins, leaf mass per area (LMA), phenols, cellulose, and non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) are primary drivers of the prognostic spectral capability which collectively result in strong consistent changes in leaf spectral reflectance in the near-infrared (700–1300 nm) and shortwave-infrared regions (1300–2500 nm). Results provide insight into the underlying foliar traits that are indicative of physiological responses of M. polymorpha trees infected with Ceratocycstis and suggest that imaging spectroscopy is an effective tool for identifying trees likely to succumb to ROD prior to the onset of visible symptoms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2519
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2022


  • Ceratocystis
  • Global Airborne Observatory
  • Hawaiʻi Island
  • Metrosideros polymorpha
  • Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death
  • canopy chemistry
  • imaging spectroscopy
  • ōhiʻa

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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