HOW TO WEIGH A FOREST FROM SPACE

Set to launch in 2022, the BIOMASS mission will attempt to measure the Earth's forest biomass using satellites.

HOW TO WEIGH A FOREST FROM SPACE

From 600 km away the BIOMASS mission satellite will measure the biomass of the Earth’s forests. That is, now that Professor Shaun Quegan has overcome one of the biggest roadblocks to the mission, the ionosphere. The ionosphere is a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere that is impacted by solar and cosmic radiation, and threatens to distort and potentially destroy any data collected. With the help of NASA the BIOMASS mission is set to fundamentally change our understanding of the Earth’s carbon balance and, as a result, climate change.

CO2 is a contributor to global warming and forests play a major role in slowing the upward trend of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. They capture carbon through the process of photosynthesis and then store it within plant biomass. When forests are destroyed for fossil fuels and land for crops this carbon is released back into the atmosphere and affects our climate. This relationship between biomass, carbon and our climate will grow in importance as our insatiable demand for energy, and therefore our carbon output, increases.

Professor Shaun Quegan

Shaun Quegan is a Professor of mathematics and statistics and the head of the Sheffield Centre for Earth Observation Science.

Shaun tells us that, without the BIOMASS mission, ‘we wouldn’t have accurate assessment of how much wood is in these forests’.  Within any data we already have ‘there is more than 50 percent uncertainty which can’t be corrected without in situ measurements’. Data in tropical regions is particularly limited due to its lack of commercial importance compared with the northern forests of Europe and North America. Additionally, previous methods of measuring biomass have often been stumped by densely forested areas which has made measuring biomass from the ground level difficult.

The BIOMASS mission, which is this year’s NERC Economic Impact Award winner, will change this. Shaun has designed the satellite to use radar technology similar to that used by aircrafts to detect obstacles in their path. It will measure the height and biomass of forests mainly in the tropical regions and generate 3D maps. A mission complementary to Shaun’s, known as the Global Ecosystems Dynamics Investigation (GEDI), is being undertaken by NASA. GEDI will provide high-resolution observations of vertical forest structure, something not seemingly possible with previous methodologies. The combined efforts of Shaun’s mission and NASA’s will allow us to establish focussed knowledge about forest structure and how biomass is changing, both of which are critical to climate change.

Professor Quegan’s work has come at a pivotal time in earth’s history. The climate is changing rapidly due to the many consequences of our unending quest for an improved quality of life. Currently we do not understand enough about our carbon balance to make accurate predictions about the future of our climate or set attainable goals for presenting disaster. However, when the mission begins in 2022, BIOMASS will change the way we view our planet and better our understanding of climate change.


Shaun Quegan is this years NERC Economic Impact Award winner