03 Oct 2011: Report

A Revolutionary Technology is
Unlocking Secrets of the Forest

A new imaging system that uses a suite of airborne sensors is capable of providing detailed, three-dimensional pictures of tropical forests — including the species they contain and the amount of CO2 they store — at astonishing speed. These advances could play a key role in preserving the world’s beleaguered rainforests.

by rhett butler

This summer, high above the Amazon rainforest in Peru, a team of scientists and technicians conducted an ambitious experiment using a pioneering technology. Deploying a pair of sweeping lasers that sent 400,000 pulses per second toward the ground, as well as an imaging spectrometer that could detect the chemical and light-reflecting properties of individual plants and trees 7,000 feet below, the researchers were able to instantaneously gather a vast amount of information about the unexplored tracts of cloud forest that passed beneath their airplane.

Conceived by Greg Asner, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the new system — known as AToMS, or the Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System — has the potential to transform how tropical forest research is

View gallery
Carnegie Airborne Observatory Peru Forest

Carnegie Airborne Observatory
CAO instrumentation unveils the 3-D structural and chemical diversity of tropical forests
conducted. By combining several breakthrough technologies, Asner and his colleagues can capture detailed images of individual trees at a rate of 500,000 or more per minute, enabling them to create a high-resolution, three-dimensional map of the physical structure of the forest, as well as its chemical and optical properties. In Peru, the scientists hoped to not only determine what tree species lay below, but also to gauge how the ecosystem was responding to last year’s drought — the worst ever recorded in the Amazon — as well as help Peru develop a better mechanism for monitoring deforestation and degradation.

Asner’s new system, a significant advance on the so-called Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) that he originally developed in 2006, could also play a vital role in global forestry in the decades ahead. The technology could help alleviate uncertainty about carbon emissions from deforestation and different forms of forest management, both of which are critical to the emerging policy of REDD (Reducing Emissions form Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a UN program that aims to compensate tropical countries for preserving their forests.

“The whole idea was to measure each of the things plant ecologists measure on the ground to evaluate biodiversity,” said Asner, as he flew over the Amazonian cloud forest. Asner is now helping the National Science Foundation develop an airplane with this suite of monitoring technologies, and is in talks with NASA about equipping a satellite with the system.

One of the key technologies Asner uses is known as LiDAR, which employs two powerful lasers to blast through canopy vegetation, reach the forest
The sensors detect dozens of chemical signals and can distinguish individual plant species.
floor, and return a wealth of information about the forest’s structure. Depending on the aircraft’s altitude, sensors can map the forest at resolutions ranging from 10 centimeters to one meter, fine enough to “see” understory shrubs and epiphytes in tree crowns. LiDAR is also very good for measuring aboveground biomass, or the amount of carbon stored in a forest’s vegetation. It can also detect surface elevations to identify watersheds and waterways.

To truly understand an ecosystem, however, scientists need to know more about its characteristics, including aspects that can’t be been with the naked eye. This is where Asner’s CAO really sets itself apart, using newly developed sensors — built by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — that can detect dozens of signals, including photosynthetic pigment concentrations, water content of leaves, defense compounds like phenols, structural compounds such as lignin and cellulose, as well as phosphorous and other micronutrients — all of which can be used to build signatures to distinguish individual plant species, as well as other measures of forest condition. The result, using the so-called VSWIR Imaging Spectrometer, is a system that can map the chemical and spectral attributes of a forest that may have more than 200 species of trees in a single hectare.

“When leaves interact with sunlight, the compounds bend, stretch, and vibrate at different patterns and rates,” said Asner. “These different rates led to different scattering of light. The spectrometer picks up on this and we’ve been able to deduce chemicals from these signatures.”

But for the CAO to accurately assess biodiversity, Asner’s team has to first do the groundwork by creating a database of the chemical and spectral properties of various plants, which are then fed into the CAO’s library of information on individual plant species. These are then correlated with the

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data collected by the CAO’s various sensors. In the Amazon, Asner and his team conducted extensive, on-the-ground work to compile information on nearly 5,000 plant species. “We have the best team of tree climbers in the world,” said Asner. “They can climb 75 trees a day, conducting full sampling.”

The aircraft that carries the system allows Asner’s team to map very large areas, sometimes more than 49,000 hectares (120,000 acres) a day. In 2009, using an older, less sophisticated version of the system, Asner mapped 4.3 million hectares of Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Now he is working on a bigger scale: nearly the entire Peruvian Amazon. After this, he goes to Colombia and Panama.

“We’re looking at biodiversity in regions that have never been put down on the science map,” said Asner.

POSTED ON 03 Oct 2011 IN Business & Innovation Forests Policy & Politics Central & South America 

COMMENTS


Very Good post.
This advance in technology will help preserve rainforests.

Dr.A.jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 04 Oct 2011


Hello Ata, I found this quite interested and related to GIS, hope it will be benefitial to you.....I have joined this board, www.conservation-strategy.org, Some of the other websites which could be of interest are:
http://www.ecosystemmarketplace.com/

http://www.csc.noaa.gov/

Posted by At Changa on 04 Oct 2011


As a person who worked for several years in the amazon rainforest of Peru (my country) and understands the advantages of the LiDAR technology, I could not agree more with what Greg Asner said at the end of the article.

Studies like this one will help to understand the importance of preserving the amazon forest to the Peruvian government that unfortuntaly is not doing much for controlling the illegal logging and mining in the region of Madre de Dios.

All my thanks for publishing this article.

Miguel Guerrero, GISP
E-mail: g.miguel.guerrero.m@gmail.com

Posted by Miguel Guerrero on 04 Oct 2011


The technology is a giant leap from the aerial photos in the 60s and even with the use of satellite sensors . .

Now we have all the tools we need to manage the tropical forests!

Eliezer P Lorenzo (Indonesia)
eliezer_lorenzo@yahoo.com

Posted by Eliezer P Lorenzo on 06 Oct 2011


Really interesting post. This technology is fascinating -- I wonder what the other applications are. It seems to open up all sorts of possibilities. Kudos to Greg Asner and his lab.

Posted by Jake on 08 Oct 2011


This is an excellent and incredible report... Amuses me how technology has gone this far....Will we stop the use and abuse of owr forest???......Poor our future generations....

Posted by Consuelo Riga on 21 Oct 2011


One of the problems in the application of the CDM mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol for small-scale afforestation and reforestation projects in developing countries is the issue of compliance costs for accurate reporting purposes. These may turn out to be higher than the value of the CERs issued.

How much would the Asner method cost to apply? Would it be available economically to local development projects or just to large-scale "industrial" ones ?

Posted by T.E.Manning on 08 Nov 2011


Great Post!

This advance in technology will help preserve rainforests. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by Sara Angel on 22 Nov 2011


T.E.Manning: the cost is less than 5 cents per hectare at scale.

Also readers might be interested in Asner's new paper which shows the margin of error for LiDAR is equivalent to conventional field-based biomass assessment. The paper is summarized at http://news.mongabay.com/2011/1102-lidar.html

Posted by Rhett Butler (author) on 06 Dec 2011


A useful development of this forest mapping sytem may be the ability, at some point, to assess the pharmacological properties of rainforest plants. Hollywood, in films such as Medicine Man, promotes the romantic myth that someday, in the deep recesses of the Amazonian junge, a shaman or a witchdoctor will slip us the answer of how to cure, say, leukemia. Well, this world-changing revelation is more likely to come from the sober, scientific research conducted by persons such as Greg Asner and his lab. Kudos to the team.

Posted by Scott Reber on 28 Dec 2011


True Technology is a great thing I myself am involved in environmental resource management but im an IT specialist by proffession , and i found some interesting tools that can determine the current environmental status about the type of gases surrounding a certain environment. Education never stops and its because of technology......... LETS PROTECT our environment. I am currently doing a project for my community and i am struggling to find a sponsor for the tools/ technical equipment needed for my project. SO anybody who reads this , please provide your helping hand to Ondundu Youth Development Orgnanization Initiative - Namibia, Capital City...: I can send through the proposal for your consideration.

Thank Everybody.... LOVE PEOPLE and Environment

Posted by Eino J I Mbango on 07 Mar 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
rhett butler  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rhett Butler is the founder and editor of Mongabay.com, one of the leading sites on the Web covering tropical forests and biodiversity. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about how satellites and GoogleEarth are being used as conservation tools and how sustainable palm oil cultivation could actually help preserve the Amazon.
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