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Space satellite to weigh Earth’s forests

The European Space Agency has given the go ahead for a satellite that promises to “weigh” the Earth’s forest as a method of monitoring them. This satellite, known as Biomass, is expected to launch in 2020 and will carry a radar system that is able to sense the trunks and big branches of trees from orbit.

All images courtesy of CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

By using Biomass, scientists will be able to calculate the amount of carbon that is stored in the world’s forests and will have the ability to monitor for any changes over the course of the five year mission that the satellite will be sent on. The data that Biomass will collect will help researchers understand better the role that trees play in the cycling of carbon on Earth and therefore will be able to add more conclusive proof to whether this role has an influence on the planets climate. Professor Shaun Quegan, one of the key proposers of the mission, said of Biomass that “[it] will give us unprecedented knowledge on the state of the world’s forests and how they are changing.”

The mission will give firm basis for treaties that aim to help developing countries preserve their forests, such as the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) initiative, while also collecting information on national forestry resources and thus have an impact on energy and biodiversity conservation discussions. Biomass is the seventh of the European Space Agency’s spacecrafts that are designed specifically to obtain data on issues of environmental concern and to take a wider look at issues on Earth from a literally bigger perspective. Three of these previous missions returned with valuable new information on gravity, polar ice cover, soil moisture and ocean salinity. Thus these missions approved by the European Space Agency are regarded as hugely important in the scientific world as they produce real results that have enormous consequences and will hopefully allow for some vital conservation efforts to come into place.

Biomass will be made up of a 1.2 tonne satellite that will send down a 70cm radar pulse that will penetrate the leafy canopies of forests but scatter back off the large woody parts of trees. It will be able to sense the volume of material at a resolution of about 200m; and in doing so, it will be able to weigh the amount of carbon that is tied up in the world’s forests. Although this sounds like a great idea, some people are not as receptive to it – the US Department of Defence (DoD) is adamant that the radar of the spacecraft would interfere with its missile early warning and space tracking systems, and have thus not permitted Biomass to operate over North America, Europe and the Arctic. However Professor Quegan will continue to have discussions with DoD to try and change their decision, but if the ban was to remain, this wouldn’t hinder Biomass’ scientific discoveries as the main focus of the spacecraft’s research (the tropics and Eurasian forests) will be permitted for Biomass to fly over.

Gaining a greater understanding of the amount of carbon that is part of the forests will hopefully give greater weight to campaigns and laws that could hinder or stop the rate of logging of forests, which currently occurs worldwide. For if Biomass can collect conclusive evidence that links the carbon cycle to the forest mass, it could be the evidence that is needed for a real impact to be had regarding the protection of the forests.

By Ellie Cambridge

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