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BIOMASS, a Satellite to Monitor World’s Forests, Set for 2020 Launch

The European Space Agency is set to develop a new Earth-observing satellite that will map and monitor global forests, providing an unprecedented level of detail and understanding to the role forests play in the global carbon cycle and potential climate change.

Hank Shugart, W.W. Corcoran Professor of Environmental Sciences in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, served on the scientific advisory committee that ultimately convinced the space agency to fund and develop the nearly $525 million satellite. Called BIOMASS, the satellite is planned for a 2020 launch. In the meantime, a great deal of instrumentation will be developed and calibrated prior to the launch. Shugart, an expert in forestry science and in the use of space satellites for studying the environment, will continue to advise the European Space Agency as it constructs and tests instruments, a role he has previous filled for NASA and other agencies.

“BIOMASS will be a hugely important instrument for global environmental science research in the coming years, and its observations will be the basis of significant international environmental policy in the areas of carbon cycling and global warming,” Shugart said.

The satellite will allow scientists to, in effect, weigh the volume of carbon stored in the forests of the world and bring greater understanding to their role in the cycling of carbon – a major greenhouse gas – in and out of the atmosphere. The satellite also will allow long-term monitoring of forest usage, such as deforestation or reforestation. The information would prove useful to international efforts to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation in rapidly developing countries.

BIOMASS will carry a long wave radar system – P-band – that can penetrate cloud cover and forest canopy to measure the mass of trees in vast remote areas that otherwise would be impossible to accurately assess from the ground.

“It will provide a vertical profile of every layer of the forest; the height and volume,” Shugart said. “It’s an overhead inventory of vast areas, some of which are nearly impenetrable to ground-based researchers.”

The system will provide 3-D mapping of boreal, temperate and tropical forests from the Arctic Circle to the equator and below, and, by implication, the likely habitat range for endangered animals and vegetation. Areas of concentration would include the massive boreal forests of Russia, the temperate regions of China and the vast rain forests of the Amazon basin and other tropical regions.

Because the radar waves would interfere with ground-based radar used by the military in the United States and Europe, those areas would not be scanned by BIOMASS, but environmental scientists already closely study forests in those areas.

“BIOMASS will give us a clear ongoing picture of the condition of the world’s forests and how they might be changing naturally or due to human activity,” Shugart said. “And our involvement with the project should provide new research opportunities for our scientists and students.”

BIOMASS will be the seventh addition to the European Space Agency’s fleet of Earth Explorer satellites, three of which are in orbit, with the rest under development.

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