Forest 30%

Forests cover 30 percent of the Earth’s land. (Map by Robert Simmon, based on data from the MODIS Land Cover Group, Boston University.)
Eighty years after it was first cut, this forest in British Columbia still has not regained its former grandeur. (Photograph ©2007 Aviruthia.)

NASA Study on the Earth's Forests

Mapping the Earth’s Forests in Three Dimensions

“The biggest natural sink of terrestrial carbon lies in our forests and trees,” says Steve Running, a forest ecologist at the University of Montana. “And the biggest natural source of carbon on land is also the forest. So one of the most important things we can do for understanding the carbon budget is to get a better inventory of the carbon we have in our trees.”

The key measurement is biomass, or the total mass of organisms living within a given area. A rule of thumb for ecologists is that the amount of carbon stored in a tree equals 50 percent of its dry biomass. So if you can estimate the biomass of all the trees in all the forests, you can estimate how much carbon is being stored on land. Repeating those measurements over years, decades, and centuries would then help us understand how carbon is moving around the planet.

Trees are often held up as a solution to our carbon budget problem. Making something like an economic argument, some people suggest that we can “grow” our way out of trouble by making (or keeping) the landscape greener. But would it help to plant more trees? To cut down fewer? And does it matter where those trees are?

The first step toward answering those questions is to figure out just how much carbon our trees store right now.

3D Visions of the Forest

Scientists have used a variety of methods to survey the world’s forests and their biomass. They have systematically measured forests from the ground, venturing into the woods to count trees, measure trunks, and climb to the top of the canopy. Taking to airplanes, they have made photographic, radar, and lidar surveys of different types of forest.

With satellites, they have collected regional and global measurements of the “greenness” of the land surface and assessed the presence or absence of vegetation, while looking for signals to distinguish trees from shrubs from ground cover.

But to assess biomass, you have to know the area, density and, most importantly, the height of the trees. Researchers have achieved this on small scales, but to use the traditional methods on a global scale is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

“We need to see Earth’s vegetation in three dimensions,” says Jon Ranson, a forest ecologist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “By measuring the height of forests, we can then estimate above-ground biomass and estimate the carbon stored in that forest. The more accurate the measurements, the more certain our estimates of the carbon.”

The first map to estimate forest heights on a global scale came in 2010. Michael Lefsky of Colorado State University combined broad views of the horizontal land surface from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites with vertical height from NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat).

The height of the world’s forests range from over 40 meters in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, to just under 20 meters for the boreal forests that ring the Arctic. In this map, darker green relates to taller forests. [NASA Earth Observatory map by Jesse Allen & Robert Simmon, using data from Michael Lefsky, Colorado State University].

The height of the world’s forests range from over 40 meters in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, to just under 20 meters for the boreal forests that ring the Arctic. In this map, darker green relates to taller forests. [NASA Earth Observatory map by Jesse Allen & Robert Simmon, using data from Michael Lefsky, Colorado State University].

The result was a map showing the world’s tallest forests clustered in the Pacific Northwest of North America and in portions of Southeast Asia, with shorter forests covering broad swaths across Canada and Eurasia. The tallest tree canopies are the temperate conifer forests—full of Douglas fir, western hemlock, redwood, and sequoia—that often grow taller than 40 meters (131 feet). Boreal forests of spruce, fir, pine, and larch usually reach less than 20 meters (66 feet) into the sky. In the middle are the temperate, broadleaf forests of Europe and the United States and the undisturbed tropical rain forests, which both average 25 meters (82 feet) tall.

The backbone of the mapping effort was data from the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS) on ICESat, which pulsed laser light at the planet’s surface more than 250 million times in its seven years of flight (2003-2009). Those pulses made direct measurements of 2.4 percent of Earth’s forest surfaces and measurements for 24 percent of the forest patches on surface. That left it to Lefsky to extrapolate and to work out mathematical model estimates for the forests surrounding the ICESat samples.

Mapping the Tropics

Sassan Saatchi, a remote sensing scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is one of several collaborators and friendly competitors working on that next draft of forest maps. He is working with satellites to see the forests for the trees and the carbon. His focus has been the thick stands of trees around the mid-section of Earth.

“I first visited a tropical forest in 1994 for a project on the Bahian Coast of Brazil, and I was mesmerized by the complexity and beauty,” Saatchi says. “I fell in love with the landscape, with the biodiversity of plants and animals, and with the people. Every time you see a tropical forest, you find something new. For a person with a background in physics and mathematics, it is one of the most complex and challenging systems to understand and model.”

Because they grow year-round, tropical forests are believed to be the most productive on Earth. They store vast amounts of carbon in the wood and roots of their trees, though scientists have only been able to make broad, speculative estimates about just how much.

“In the northern forests of the United States, Canada, and Europe, there are usually sophisticated forestry systems to measure structure and biomass by state or region,” Saatchi says. “In the tropics, we often have no clue how forest carbon is distributed on a local level.”

What researchers do know is that tropical deforestation and forest degradation account for between 10 and 20 percent of all manmade emissions of carbon dioxide, a significant greenhouse gas. Images from satellites, the space shuttle, and the International Space Station have been showing the smoke plumes for decades. Deforestation is big business, as large-scale producers of palm oil, soybeans, beef, and leather add to the pressure on tropical forests from small farmers working to raise themselves out of poverty. Rising global demands for these commodities mean that these fires may not stop anytime soon.

Fire is commonly used to clear forested land in the tropics. An astronaut aboard the International Space Station captured this photograph of burning in Brazil on August 14, 2010. (NASA astronaut photograph ISS024-E-11941, courtesy the NASA-JSC Earth Observations Lab.)

“Tropical forests have a high diversity of plants, and are extremely variable over the landscape and in their interaction with the climate, yet they are poorly measured and monitored,” Saatchi notes. “I have worked every measurement and mathematical tool I could muster to try to understand and map this complexity.”

Working with 14 colleagues from 10 institutions around the world (including Michael Lefsky), Saatchi set about compiling and analyzing measurements from four space-based instruments—the GLAS lidar on ICESat, MODIS, the QuikSCAT scatterometer, and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission—and from 4,079 ground-based forest plots. The team mapped more than three million measurements of tree heights and correlated them to measurements of trees from the ground. They calculated the amount of carbon stored above ground and in the roots. And they extrapolated their results over forest areas where there is less ground sampling but some known characteristics.

The result, released in May 2011, was a benchmark map of biomass carbon stocks covering 2.5 billion hectares (9.65 million square miles) of forest in 75 countries on three continents. Though previous efforts have mapped tropical forests on regional or local scales, the new map is “the first effort to quantify the distribution of forest carbon systematically over the entire tropical region,” Saatchi says.

The researchers found that nearly 247 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon was sequestered in tropical forests, with 193 gigatons stored above ground in trunks, branches, and leaves, and 54 gigatons stored below ground in the roots. Forests in Central and South America accounted for 49 percent of the total, with Southeast Asia sheltering 26 percent and sub-Saharan Africa with 25 percent of the carbon storage.