Scientist taking infrared laser look at forests

November 1, 2012 by Kay Ledbetter
Dr. Sorin Popescu, at right, leads his students, Shruthi Srinivasan, Ryan Sheridan and Nian-Wei Ku, left to right, on work with lidar remote sensing for assessing forest vegetation. (Texas A&M AgriLIfe Research photo)

The old adage "you can't see the forest for the trees" might mean more to Dr. Sorin Popescu than most people.

Popescu, a Texas A&M University associate professor in the department of ecosystem science and management, uses remote sensing and other advanced technology to make sure he sees both the individual trees and the overall forest.

Forests change continually for various reasons – fires, insect defoliation, hurricanes, drought and more, he said. These changes can affect the communities that depend on the forest industry.

Popescu monitored the Sam Houston National Forest from 2004 to 2009 and now he is measuring again to see what has changed. There are not many studies that use the multi-temporal lidar remote sensing data sets to see how forests change overtime.

Lidar is similar in operation to radar but emits pulsed laser light instead of microwaves. Popescu's work involves measuring vegetation canopy height as a basis for estimating large-scale biomass and change to that biomass with space-borne lidar sensors.

"With these methods, we are better able to assess and monitor forest conditions over time and at various scales," Popescu said.

In East Texas, this information is vital to the timber industry, as well as for protecting the soil and environment, and habitat for wildlife, he said. Understanding the data also helps to mitigate climate effects and protect or improve recreational values.

Popescu is wrapping up one four-year study funded by NASA and has just started a new study, both aimed at developing algorithms and software tools to process lidar data that can estimate forest biophysical parameters, such as stand density, tree height, crown diameter, volume and biomass.

Up until 2009, there was one lidar space-borne sensor known as the Ice Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite or ICESat. But the laser burned out, Popescu said, and now NASA is working on bringing a second generation ICESat2 online in 2016.

But before that comes online, there is much work to be done, he said.

Popescu is working on a new NASA-funded study as a co-investigator with Dr. Ross Nelson, an adjunct faculty with Texas A&M and a physical scientist with the Biospheric Sciences Branch of NASA in Greenbelt, Md. Also on the team is Dr. Kaiguang Zhao, Popescu's former doctorate student and now a postdoc at Duke University.

Popescu's algorithms will process the data when received from ICESat that will aid in measuring forest biophysical parameters, such as biomass. Also, half of the biomass is carbon, so, he said, they can measure the carbon sequestering of forests over large areas and that will relate to climate-change studies.

"The way NASA works, they don't want to wait for ICESat2 to come only before continuing the study, so they have built some airborne sensors that are attached to airplanes and collect similar data," he said. "We are processing that data, as well, for different atmospheric conditions, vegetation heights and terrain topography."

This new NASA project goes hand in hand with one they funded for Popescu four years ago. As he wraps up the first study, he said, the primary focus was to develop and learn the methodology needed to use lidar to assess forests.

While lidar used for forest studies is not new – it started back in the early 1980's – the sensors have evolved tremendously and now can provide a three-dimensional look, which provides the best estimates on height and forest structure.

The sensors allow three platforms of vision – terrestrial, airborne and satellite, Popescu said. When all three are combined, each bit of data helps to better understand the other. They each vary by what aspect and resolution they give – and scientists can zoom way in to see even how leaves and branches are distributed on a particular tree.

Knowing the general tree dimensions and linking that with the forest coverage can help estimate biomass in a region and tell the carbon accumulation and how the is responding to climate, he said.

Explore further: NASA, Grumman sign radar development pact

Related Stories

NASA, Grumman sign radar development pact

February 26, 2008

The U.S. space agency and the Northrop Grumman Corp. signed an agreement to develop systems to explore life and climate on Earth and other planets.

New approach to measuring carbon in forests

March 26, 2008

CSIRO is collaborating in a NASA-funded project, using a CSIRO-designed instrument, to help develop new methods of measuring forest carbon stores on a large scale.

Using Lasers to Map Bird Habitat

September 29, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Lasers are providing scientists with new tools for mapping, protecting, and restoring bird habitat along rivers. In a paper published in the October issue of Ecological Applications, scientists from PRBO ...

NASA map sees Earth's trees in a new light

February 20, 2012

A NASA-led science team has created an accurate, high-resolution map of the height of Earth's forests. The map will help scientists better understand the role forests play in climate change and how their heights influence ...

Sizing up biomass from space

October 30, 2012

The biomass stored in forests is thought to play a critical role in mitigating the catastrophic effects of global climate change. New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Carbon Balance and Management ...

Recommended for you

Clues from ancient Maya reveal lasting impact on environment

September 3, 2015

Evidence from the tropical lowlands of Central America reveals how Maya activity more than 2,000 years ago not only contributed to the decline of their environment but continues to influence today's environmental conditions, ...

Climate ups odds of 'grey swan' superstorms

August 31, 2015

Climate change will boost the odds up to 14-fold for extremely rare, hard-to-predict tropical cyclones for parts of Australia, the United States and Dubai by 2100, researchers said Monday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.