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Declining Tropical Forests Getting Help From Space?

Feb 04, 2015 02:23 PM EST
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In the face of climate change tropical forests are rapidly declining, but soon they may be getting some help from space, according to new research.

Much like a similar NASA approach, the Biomass mission from the European Space Agency (ESA) will provide a global picture from 2020 to 2025 of the carbon stored in forests. It will for the first time use sensitive radio waves from space satellites to measure forest height down to 200 meters (656 feet) and provide a 3D picture of the world's ecosystems.

The novel approach is based on a remote sensing technique called Polarmetric InSar, or PolinSAR, that will also calculate the forest biomass and tomographic radar to better determine how trees are distributed.

"This will give us a lot of information about forest structure and also about the changes in forest," Shaun Quegan, the Biomass Principal Investigator from the University of Sheffield, told CBS News. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : DLR TANDEM-X DATA, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Deforestation contributes about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. In an effort to curb deforestation around the globe, UN leaders pioneered what is called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which essentially pays countries to save their tropical forests. However, the flaw in this plan is that it's difficult to accurately gauge whether participating countries are in fact saving forests or simply fooling the system.

The ESA's Biomass mission will hopefully fix this loophole and lead to a "completely consistent, impartial, unbiased estimates of biomass," Quegan said.

The PolinSAR technology surpasses what is currently available to measure forests. For example, the aforementioned NASA mission relies on an instrument called the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) LIDAR.

LIDAR is typically used to measure the height of an object or landmark, just as craters, geological formations or even ice melt. When a LIDAR-equipped craft flies over a region, laser pulses are sent to the ground and then reflected back up to the craft. The time it takes for that pulse to leave and bounce back allows experts to map out the surfaces of that region.

However, this advanced technique is not sensitive enough to penetrate deep into thick forests.

"There is this big gap in the tropics that none of the sensors can get into," Quegan explained to CBS. "That is where most of the carbon is, where the biggest uncertainty is and where there the most concern is over the loss of forests."

With the more sensitive Biomass mission, scientists are optimistic that they may better understand global tropical forests and their impact on climate change due to deforestation.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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