Research Post

Predicting insect outbreaks using machine learning: A mountain pine beetle case study


Planning forest management relies on predicting insect outbreaks such as mountain pine beetle, particularly in the intermediate-term future, e.g., 5-y. Machine-learning algorithms are potential solutions to this challenging problem due to their many successes across a variety of prediction tasks. However, there are many subtle challenges in applying them: identifying the best learning models and the best subset of available covariates (including time lags) and properly evaluating the models to avoid misleading performance-measures. We systematically address these issues in predicting the chance of a mountain pine beetle outbreak in the Cypress Hills area and seek models with the best performance at predicting future 1-, 3-, 5- and 7-y infestations. We train nine machine-learning models, including two generalized boosted regression trees (GBM) that predict future 1- and 3-y infestations with 92% and 88% AUC, and two novel mixed models that predict future 5- and 7-y infestations with 86% and 84% AUC, respectively. We also consider forming the train and test datasets by splitting the original dataset randomly rather than using the appropriate year-based approach and show that this may obtain models that score high on the test dataset but low in practice, resulting in inaccurate performance evaluations. For example, a k-nearest neighbor model with the actual performance of 68% AUC, scores the misleadingly high 78% on a test dataset obtained from a random split, but the more accurate 66% on a year-based split. We then investigate how the prediction accuracy varies with respect to the provided history length of the covariates and find that neural network and naive Bayes, predict more accurately as history-length increases, particularly for future 1- and 3-y predictions, and roughly the same holds with GBM. Our approach is applicable to other invasive species. The resulting predictors can be used in planning forest and pest management and planning sampling locations in field studies.

Latest Research Papers

Connect with the community

Get involved in Alberta's growing AI ecosystem! Speaker, sponsorship, and letter of support requests welcome.

Explore training and advanced education

Curious about study options under one of our researchers? Want more information on training opportunities?

Harness the potential of artificial intelligence

Let us know about your goals and challenges for AI adoption in your business. Our Investments & Partnerships team will be in touch shortly!