The International Space Station Will Soon Be Able to Measure Forest Density Using Lasers

23 January 2015

Yes, the future of the world’s climate is tied to the ability of forests to absorb atmospheric carbon. But exactly how well they can do that job depends on the density of the forests themselves, and scientists don’t have exact measures of that—yet. Soon they’ll have a new way to obtain that information from 268 miles above the earth.

The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) is a lidar, or laser-based, instrument being developed for the International Space Station. Once installed, in 2018, the $94 million device will beam three infrared lasers at earth, 240 times per second, or 16 billion times per year. Those light pulses will hit the forest floor and canopy, and the time that the reflections take to reach the space station will indicate the height of the trees. Three-D maps based on that information will lead to new estimates of forest biomass and, hence, the appetite for atmospheric carbon dioxide, consumed during photosynthesis.

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