New Method That Pinpoints Wood’s Origin May Curb Illegal Timber

Using a unique combination of old-fashioned field work and sophisticated computer modeling, scientists in Sweden have found a way to trace a single beam of lumber to the forest in Europe where it originated.

The researchers said the new method, described in a recent paper in the Nature Plants journal, could significantly curb the sale of Russian timber, which is prohibited in the European Union because of the war in Ukraine. But birch, oak, pine and other types of lumber from Russia are still finding European buyers amid surging demand.

Last month, the novel approach was used to identify large shipments of illegal Russian lumber in Belgium.

The new study looked at the chemical composition of 900 wood samples collected from 11 countries in Eastern Europe. The data was fed into a model powered by machine learning, which found patterns that could predict the geographic origin of the samples.

Overall, the model caught 60 percent of the samples that had been intentionally labeled with the wrong country of origin. The model could also narrow the wood’s origin to a roughly 125-mile radius, a remarkable feat in a continent that’s roughly 40 percent covered by forest.

The method is “very, very solid from a technical point,” said Naren Ramakrishnan, a data scientist at Virginia Tech who was not involved in the research.

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