Breakthrough Technology Maps Rainforests In 3D, Including Carbon Storage

Between Google and NASA, we would think mapping technology is already darn near perfect. But thanks to the work of researchers and scientists at Carnegie Institution for Science, we know mapping technology is just getting going. Greg Asner, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, conceived a new system for mapping forests several years ago -- a system that maps every detail in 3D and can even tell researchers how much carbon the forest is storing. And now, that system is proving its potential.

Known as AToMS, or the Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System, the new technology in mapping can mean huge strides for demonstrating how important areas of forest are for biodiversity, for carbon storage and capture, and so on. It is a technology we covered last year, when the team mapped the carbon storage of Peru's Amazon.

As we noted last year, "The technology and the findings can help countries with healthy rainforests take part in a carbon economy, and financially leverage their biological assets without having to send in logging teams."

So how does it work? The system uses airborne sensors that can capture information, and it was used again this summer in the Peruvian Amazon.

Yale e360 writes, "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."

The mapping includes not just the 3D structure of the forest, but even the chemical diversity from photosynthetic pigment concentrations to water content in leaves to micronutrient contents. This is what allows them to know which species they're looking at on the map, and how the forest is doing in the face of a previous drought and possible deforestation.

As we said, this shows that mapping technology is just getting started. The new tools developed by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory could measure everything that plant biologists try to measure while on the ground -- but all from above to save time, expense and still get accurate measurements. It may even be done with satellite, as the team is in talks with NASA.

Mongabay reports, "The aircraft that carries the system allows Asner's team to map very large areas, sometimes more than 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 Department. Now he is working on a bigger scale: nearly the entire Peruvian Amazon. After this, he goes to Colombia and Panama. Asner has also run the system in Madagascar."

The tools can even be used to research termite mounts in savannas or the carbon landscape of Panama, two projects the CAO is already working on. The technology can, and will become a significant part of the dialogue about forest conservation, mapping the health, deforestation and degradation, and carbon capabilities of these "lungs of the planet".

Here is CAO's Greg Asner speaking with Mongabay about the system:

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