New mapping technology to change face of global forestry assessment

NASA has announced the development of a new Satellite laser mapping technology which will allow the structure of forests – and their carbon capture rates – to be measured for the first time.

A laser will be sent into space by America’s space agency in 2018, which will be able to assess the world’s tree cover in a detailed way that has never been possible before this technology. The aim of the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation lidar (GEDI) project is to assess the world’s forest cover in 3-D from trunk to canopy and also to get an overall view of the amount of carbon that is stored in forests.

One of the members of the GEDI team, Laura Duncanson, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Scientific American: “It will be a game changer. Lidar is the only technology that can penetrate the forest floor and estimate carbon.”

Currently, around 24 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally is attributed to the land-use sector, which includes agriculture. Across the world, forests are believed to be capturing between 10 and 14 per cent of current gross carbon emissions. However, all forests vary regarding their carbon capture abilities.

It is thought that the GEDI project will enable the “next frontier” of carbon and forest mapping to be unlocked, as the information is is capable of providing will assist those countries that have a large amount of forest cover to decide how to hit their climate change targets in the future.

The GEDI project will not be the first NASA foray into lidar technology, but it will be the first time that the agency has sent a laser into space which is aimed solely at investigating and tracking forests and related carbon levels.

By linking GEDI measurements of forest cover with data on exactly how much carbon is stored in wood, the team of NASA researchers are aiming to be able to produce a detailed estimate of the carbon stored in forests.

The carbon capture demonstrated by forests is essential to keeping climate change in check – indeed, most researchers have confirmed that, without this carbon sequestration, the globe as a low chance of being able to ensure global warming remains less than the targeted 2-degree-Celsius threshold.

Part of the reason for the launch of the GEDI project was the rising demand for baseline data and assessment of the carbon that is stored in forests across the world. Demand has been coming thick and fast as a result of the increasing interest in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, (REDD+) which is the deforestation programme backed by the United Nations.

Nancy Harris, research manager for Global Forest Watch, the World Resources Institute’s online forest data programme, said: “Technology has allowed us to go so much further. Probably even less than ten years ago, we were relying on FAO data reported every five years on forest biomass and area information.”

Due to this rising interest in forestry technology, other organisations as well as NASA are investing in linked programmes, such as Biomass, The European Space Agency’s satellite that will be map tropical forests in 2020. Other agencies are also announcing plans to use radar technology to carry out similar jobs.

Ms Harris went on to say: “For so long, we’ve been limited to this 2-D view of the world, so to map the canopy structure will be cool. That provides an excellent opportunity. If there’s only one data set, you don’t have to question what’s right, but as you have more and more data, the key will be using that information in a way to allow insight.”

GWD Forestry spokesman, James Barrett, said: “It is promising to hear about this new technology which will be able to highlight the crucial role the globe’s forests play in holding back climate change. Forests are one of the world’s most precious assets and they should be treated as such.”

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