Combining modelling and remote sensing techniques to monitor and control the spread of invasive species

Ailanthus altissima

Ailanthus altissima is one of the most highly invasive plants in Europe. It reproduces both by seeds and asexually through root sprouting. The winged seeds can be dispersed by wind, water and machinery, while its robust root system can generate numerous suckers and cloned plants. Ailanthus altissima typically occurs in very dense clumps, but can also occasionally grow as widely spaced or single stems. This invasive plant can colonise a wide range of anthropogenic and natural sites, from stony and sterile soils to rich alluvial bottoms. Due to its vigour, rapid growth, tolerance, adaptability and lack of natural enemies, it spreads spontaneously, out-competing other plants and inhibiting their growth

Over the last few decades, Ailanthus altissima has quickly spread in the Alta Murgia National Park (southern Italy) which is mostly characterised by dry grassland and pseudo-steppe, wide-open spaces with low vegetation, which are very vulnerable to invasion. Ailanthus altissima causes serious direct and indirect damages to ecosystems, replacing and altering communities that have great conservation value, producing severe ecological, environmental and economic effects, and causing natural habitat loss and degradation. The spread of Ailanthus altissima is likely to increase in the future, unless robust action is taken at all levels to control its expansion. In a recent working document of the European Commission, it was found that the cost of controlling and eliminating invasive species in Europe amounts to €12 billion per year. Two relevant questions then arise: i) whether it is possible or not to fully eradicate or, at least, to reduce the impact of an invasive species and ii) how to achieve this at a minimum cost, in terms of both environmental damage and economic resources.

A Life Programme funded the Life Alta Murgia project (LIFE12BIO/IT/000213) had, as its main objective, the eradication of this invasive exotic tree species from the Alta Murgia National Park. This project provided both the expert knowledge and valuable in-field data for the Ailanthus validation case study, which was conceived and developed within the Internal Joint Initiative of LifeWatch ERIC.

At the start of the ongoing eradication program a single map of A. altissima was available, dating back to 2012. Due to the lack of data, predicting the extent of invasion and its impacts was extremely difficult, making it impossible to assess the efficacy of control measures. Static models based on statistics cannot predict spatial–temporal dynamics (e.g. where and when A. altissima may repopulate an area), whereas mechanistic models incorporating the growth and spread of a plant would require precise parametrisation, which was extremely difficult with the scarce information available. To overcome these limitations, a relatively simple mechanistic model has been developed, a diffusion model, which is validated against the current spatial distribution of the plant estimated by satellite images. This model accounts for the effect of eradication programs by using a reaction term to estimate the uncertainty of the prediction, also providing an automatic tool to estimate a-priori the effectiveness of a planned control action under temporal and budget constraints.

This robust tool can be easily applied to other geographical areas and, potentially, to different species.

The developed workflow will soon be available on this page.

Open Knowledge Map

Validation cases

Validation cases

Five validation cases were agreed on by the scientific community representatives to focus on various aspects of Non-indigenous and Invasive Species (NIS) invasions that satisfied the desire of the infrastructure to engage a range of disciplines in the investigation of this broad and complex topic.

In a succession of collaborative workshops in late 2019, scientists and ICT experts jointly drew up a conceptual paper and agreed on a workflow that would serve as a living timeline, along which different e-tools could be developed to address the data requirements of the NIS scientists, and then serve as a resource for environmental managers, decision-makers and citizens interested in biodiversity and ecosystem research.

Framework and knowledge map

General Framework for the Internal Joint Initiative

Click on the framework to enlarge it.

Open Knowledge Map

Knowledge maps provide an instant overview of a topic by showing the main areas at a glance, and papers related to each area clustering similar open and closed access papers. If you want to know more about Open Knowledge Map tool please visit this link.

Internal Joint Initiative

Rationale for the Internal Joint Initiative

The warnings of 15,000 scientists, of the United Nations Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) and now of the UN Global Assessment Study clearly demonstrate that humanity is bringing our life support system, the biosphere, to the point of collapse. The effort to counteract this current loss of biodiversity requires concrete actions at all levels. For science, it means improving our current level of knowledge, to move beyond the present fragmentation of science, and to foster greater complementarity and synergy between disciplines, by developing new inter-disciplinary paradigms and starting to build synthetic knowledge, so as to boost innovation and involve more young scientists and civil society.

LifeWatch ERIC is Europe’s first line of response to this emergency, applying and advancing ICT technologies, web networks, interconnecting scientific communities and research centres internationally into its web-based research infrastructure.


The Internal Joint and Collaborative Initiative (IJI) was created in order to:

  1. Boost the integration of tools and services into the LifeWatch ERIC web portal
  2. Focus on a major scientific issue in biodiversity and ecosystem research with relevant socio-economic implications in different fields;
  3. Produce new and synthetic knowledge that is needed by institutions, administrations and managers to give solutions to major environmental problems at different scales;
  4. Involve the LifeWatch ERIC National scientific communities, key international research groups and other European research Infrastructures with related interests and running activities; and,
  5. Make this effort an example of the functioning of the LifeWatch ERIC e-Infrastructure through its dissemination and outreach activities.

The topic of non-indigenous and invasive species (NIS) was chosen as the first demonstration case of the functioning of the LifeWatch ERIC e-Infrastructure. The development of virtual research environments within the e-Infrastructure will help address some of the main issues on NIS in the field of ecosystem and habitat type vulnerability and in the context of climate change as well as help highlight societal needs and potential solutions to be tested.

ENVRI International Winter School DATA FAIRness

Click here to see the programme.

The Winter School was organised over a two-week period, on average dedicating around 40 hours in total (including preparation). It was structured around daily activities, with scheduled lectures and presentations in the mornings (09-11), followed by associated group and individual work time (11-12).

Target audience:

Since the focus was on supporting end users in how to make the best use of data, understanding the end user perspective was very important to developing good user interfaces and services to interact with data.
The main target groups were the staff at ENVRI data centres, researchers and PhD candidates, with the aim to:

  • present state-of-the-art technologies relevant to FAIRification of services
  • based on real-life use cases, encourage adoption of new technology to enhance data centre functionality
  • enable new knowledge-exchange networks for ENVRI data professionals

For practical reasons, we could only accommodate 30 participants in total. The selection of participants was based on a mix of criteria, including motivation and use case descriptions.

Towards ENVRI Community International Winter School DATA FAIRness

In July-September 2020 we organised a three-day webinar programme, which introduced the main topics of the winter school (the use of FAIR data in ENVRI Community, and for Environmental and Earth sciences research) with theoretical presentations, exercises and discussion. The training materials (slides, presentations, recordings, etc.) are available on the ENVRI-FAIR Training Platform. 

Towards ENVRI Winter School

Towards ENVRI Community International Winter School DATA FAIRness

Webinar Programme July-September 2020

Due to the COVID-19 emergency, our planned summer school, initially scheduled for 10-15 July was postponed to January 2021. The restrictions for travelling to and from Italy, the other safety measures adopted in many countries to contain the virus and the general uncertainty made it impossible for us to confirm the original schedule. The revised website with the updated programme can be found here.

In the meanwhile, we decided to organise a three-day webinar programme, which introduced the main topics of the Winter School (the use of FAIR data in ENVRI Community, and for Environmental and Earth sciences research) with theoretical presentations, exercises and discussion.

Target audience:

The main target group were the ENVRI-FAIR project partners data centre staff, but anyone interested was permitted to attend the webinars.

INTERNATIONAL SUMMER SCHOOL Data FAIRness in Environmental & Earth Science Infrastructures

In recent years, one of the major challenges in Environmental and Earth Science has been managing and searching larger volumes of data, collected across multiple disciplines. Many different standards, approaches, and tools have been developed to support the phases of the Data Lifecycle (Data Acquisition, Data Curation, Data Publishing, Data Processing and Data Use). In particular, modern semantic technologies provide a promising way to properly describe and interrelate different data sources in ways that reduce barriers to data discovery, integration, and exchange among biodiversity and ecosystem resources and researchers.

The course focused on the specific Data FAIRness element of Environmental and Earth sciences. It was built as a five-day summer school where leading scientists addressed this topic from a variety of perspectives.

The aim was to gather the most interesting perspectives of our time.

We offered a cutting edge and high-quality programme, aimed at fostering a rich and lively intellectual exchange.


Scientific Community Meeting


Plenaries were followed by Working Sessions that aimed to promote greater involvement of the user communities in LifeWatch ERIC, and to gather clear indications of their needs, in terms of services and VRE developments, to facilitate and support their research activities. Participants were also involved in contributing to working session flash presentations. 

A Round Table discussion closed the meeting.