The secret to stabilizing the Earth's climate could lie in the forests of the world. So a team of researchers is sending a high-tech intelligence officer to the International Space Station this week to find out how much carbon is stored in our planet's trees.
Placing into the next SpaceX Dragon spaceship and armed only With a laser altimeter, the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) awaits deployment. Launched on December 4, this first LIDAR instrument is designed to map the world's forests in 3D, providing better estimates of their biomass and their carbon storage.
Forests of the Earth The oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere. But deforestation and other disturbances can cause carbon to be released, and much remains to be learned about which forests are carbon sinks and which carbon sources are on a global scale. According to Ralph Dubayah, professor of geographic sciences at the University of Maryland and senior investigator at GEDI, it is difficult to predict future CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere without this information.
We do not need just that In order to better understand this carbon balance, we need to know how carbon is spatially distributed in forests. GEDI will help close these critical gaps in carbon accounting.
It will do this by weighing trees. Which may sound like a complicated exercise, but fortunately Dubayah and his team have equipped GEDI with a powerful laser that can do just that without hacking any of them. Essentially a scientific Lego piece, once taken from the Dragon's trunk, GEDI is installed via a robotic arm in the Exposed Facility of the Japanese Experiment Module. From its orbital bass, GEDI will provide the first high-resolution observations of the forest's worldwide vertical structure.
GEDI measures this vertical structure with the help of three lasers, which emit pulses to Earth 242 times per second. Then it will be time how long it takes for some light to return to the instrument. One of the mission's biggest challenges was simply to have enough laser power and sensitivity to see through dense tropical forest canopies.
When the laser pulses travel through the forest canopy, the reflected reflections can similarly enhance the 3D structure of the forest. An echocardiogram shows a doctor your blood vessels in your heart. "We can see and measure how tall the tree is, and in fact we can see how dense the foliage and branches are when we go down," said Bryan Blair, GEDI instrumental scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, Maryland, to Earther. Dubayah added that at the end of his planned two-year mission, GEDI will have collected more than 10 billion measurements, representing the most detailed map of forests in the world.
Trees resemble humans in terms of height and weight. If you were to look at people and create a height-versus-weight graph, you would find that taller people tend to weigh more than shorter people. It's the same with trees If we know how tall trees are, we can convert their height into biomass numbers and determine their weight. In this way we will know how much carbon is possibly released when we destroy it. The height and vertical structure of trees can also provide information on habitat quality and the impact of structural changes on habitat quality and biodiversity reforestation projects around the world. But how effectively can they remove CO2 from the atmosphere? Where new trees are planted is as important as many. The data collected by GEDI will help decision makers to understand the implications of forest loss prevention and reduction and the benefits of reforestation projects.
Data collected by GEDI could also be useful in the future to combat forest fires. Knowing the exact structure of a particular forest could help officials better predict the spread of fires. Dubayah explained that the vertical structure of a forest cabin resembles a map of forest fuel. "The structure of the canopy determines how a fire can jump from a ground fire to a tree fire," Dubayah explained during a briefing before take-off. "GEDI can be used by the forestry service to create better structural maps that will then be used for forest fire modeling."
There is one thing certain: when trees are felled or burned, CO2 is released into the atmosphere. GEDI will help shed light on carbon leakage so that we can make better policy decisions when it comes to the environment. The question is, if the data is published, will leaders continue to reject the need to combat climate change?
Amy is a scientific writer who really loves outer space.