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Scientists map forest heights from space

KD Suarez

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Mapping of forest canopy heights have implications in climate change studies, in particular the importance of forests

FOREST HEIGHTS. A global map of forest height produced from NASA's ICESAT/GLAS, MODIS and TRMM sensors. The map will advance our understanding of Earth's forest habitats and their role in Earth's carbon cycle. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

MANILA, Philippines – Researchers at NASA have mapped the height of forest canopies, helping scientists better understand forests and the role they play in our planet.

The map, created by scientists from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the University of Maryland, and Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, shows the highest points of the forest canopy worldwide.

Light detection and ranging (lidar) technology was used in the creation of the map, part of a study recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Biogeosciences, NASA said Friday, February 17.

The Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite’s (ICESat) Geoscience Laser Altimeter System Instrument collecled around 2.5 million laser pulses. Data on global tree cover, land elevation, temperature, and precipitation, as well as data from ground sites, were also used to complete information for areas with incomplete lidar data.

The data was then mapped to reveal the height of forests around the world. On the map, red areas have forest canopy heights of more than 40 meters, while blue areas have low forest canopy heights. White areas, meanwhile, are non-forest areas.

The study revealed that generally, forest heights become lower as one moves further from the Equator, with some exceptions, such as in southern temperate forests in Australia and New Zealand.

The map has important implications in the study of climate change, as well as the influence of forest heights to wildlife and carbon content in vegetation.

“Knowing the height of Earth’s forests is critical to estimating their biomass, or the amount of carbon they contain… Our map can be used to improve global efforts to monitor carbon. In addition, forest height is an integral characteristic of Earth’s habitats, yet is poorly measured globally, so our results will also benefit studies of the varieties of life that are found in particular parts of the forest or habitats,” lead researcher Marc Simard of the JPL was quoted as saying.

“Our map contains one of the best descriptions of the height of Earth’s forests currently available at regional and global scales,” Simard added.

The map can be found at http://lidarradar.jpl.nasa.gov/. – Rappler.com

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