NASA satellites take measure of world forests

NASA satellites help measure forest impact on carbon cycles, biomass

nasa icesat
NASA today said three of its satellites have helped create a first-of-its kind height map of the world's forests.  The data will help scientists measure how much carbon the world's forests store and how fast that carbon cycles through the environment and back into the atmosphere, the space agency stated.  

Based on data collected by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites, along with the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat, the map is the first that spans the entire globe using one uniform method, NASA said. The map shows the world's tallest forests are clustered in North America's Pacific Northwest and portions of Southeast Asia. Shorter forests are found in broad swaths across northern Canada and Eurasia.

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According to NASA, the map data show that temperate conifer forests -- which are extremely moist and contain massive trees such as Douglas fir, western hemlock, redwoods, and sequoias -- have the tallest canopies, soaring above 131 ft. In contrast, boreal forests dominated by spruce, fir, pine, and larch had canopies typically less than 66 ft. Relatively undisturbed areas in tropical rain forests were about 82 ft tall, roughly the same height as the oak, beeches, and birches of temperate broadleaf forests common in Europe and much of the US, NASA stated.

"Measuring canopy height has implications for efforts to estimate the amount of carbon tied up in Earth's forests and for explaining what absorbs 2 billion tons of "missing" carbon each year. Humans release about 7 billion tons of carbon annually, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. Of that, 3 billion tons end up in the atmosphere and 2 billion tons in the ocean. It's unclear where the remaining 2 billion tons of carbon go, although scientists suspect forests capture and store much of it as biomass through photosynthesis," NASA said.

NASA said that it will combine the new height data with forest inventories to create biomass maps for tropical forests. Global biomass inventories will eventually be used to improve climate models and help policymakers with carbon management strategies, NASA stated.

The primary data was produced from laser technology called lidar onboard the ICESat spacecraft said Michael Lefsky, a remote-sensing specialist from Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, produced the final map. Lidar can capture vertical slices of forest canopy height by shooting pulses of light at the ground and observing how much longer it takes for light to bounce back from the surface than from the top of the forest canopy. Since lidar can penetrate the top layer of forest canopy, it provides a detailed snapshot of the vertical structure of a forest. The map is based on data from more than 250 million laser pulses collected during a seven-year period, he said.

The lidar data was combined with information gathered from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), an instrument aboard NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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