Sheffield-born space mission to measure the world's forests

A unique space mission that will exploit our research and enable the earth's global forest biomass to be measured with unprecedented accuracy is scheduled to launch in 2020.

Approved by the European Space Agency's (ESA) Earth Observation Board, the €470-million BIOMASS mission will produce the first high resolution accurate maps of tropical, temperate and boreal forest biomass from space. The mission will also help address urgent scientific, political and societal issues.

Professor Shaun Quegan, of the University of Sheffield's School of Mathematics and Statistics, and Dr Le Toan, from the Centre d’Etudes Spatiales du Biosphère, Toulouse, conceived the mission eight years ago and are the principal investigators.

Professor Quegan said: "Understanding how the amount of living material – biomass - in our global forest changes over time is essential to improve present and future assessments of the global carbon cycle, and therefore our climate."

BIOMASS mission: measuring forests from spaceCurrently most estimates of biomass used to test research models come from ground-based measurements. However, as these measurements are scarce, particularly in the tropics, they are of limited value in reducing the uncertainties in the models.

The BIOMASS mission will completely change this by providing frequent, accurate and consistent measurements that will help to validate and improve current Earth system models. It will do this by using the first ever spaceborne 70-centimetre wavelength radar sensor to probe both the height of forests and how much wood they contain, at a scale of 200 metres.

As well as giving unparalleled and accurate insight into forest biomass and its changes, this mission should provide information on ice-sheet motion, the earth’s upper atmosphere, subsurface geology in arid regions and sea surface salinity.

The project has significant economic impact too, both in the money that has already been spent in the European economy during the initial industrial and scientific studies, and in the quantifiable reallocation of public spending committed for the future mission.

The BIOMASS mission is also hoping to contribute to the United Nations REDD Programme, an international effort to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

Professor Quegan said: "The purpose of REDD is to encourage better tropical forest management so that we can manage emissions from deforestation – but a major problem is knowing what biomass is there in the first place. Without the BIOMASS mission our chances of achieving international agreement are very poor, as no one has a reference against which to check the numbers."

School of Mathematics and Statistics