For Immediate Release
October 16, 2012
Contacts: Laura Ours, 301-405-5722 or email@example.com
University of Maryland Wins $1.4 Million NASA Grant to Map State Forest Cover and Carbon Resources
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The University of Maryland's Department of Geographical Sciences is leading a major project to map the forest resources of Maryland as part of NASA's Carbon Monitoring System program (CMS). The project will develop novel methods for measuring changes in forest carbon stocks using satellite images and other data at local, national and global scales. The project, titled "High Resolution Carbon Monitoring and Modeling: A CMS Phase 2 Study," is supported by a $1.4 million award from NASA and will lead to new methods for assessing the consequences of deforestation and other land use changes on forest carbon stores.
The research will directly support so-called carbon "cap and trade" programs, whereby carbon polluting industries (both nationally and internationally) may purchase carbon offsets that are derived from determining the amount of carbon stored in forests, both now and in the future as they grow. The implementation of such schemes has been severely limited by our inability to quantify and subsequently verify the carbon content of forests in an accurate, efficient and transparent fashion over large areas.
This project builds on previous work at UMD sponsored by NASA, and will result in high-resolution, statewide maps of tree cover, forest carbon and forest regrowth potential that will serve as models for similar efforts around the country and internationally. "These maps will answer the question of how much carbon - under various land use change scenarios - the forests of Maryland can absorb from the atmosphere over the next 50 to 100 years," says Geographical Sciences Professor Ralph Dubayah, the principal investigator for the project. "The findings and lessons we learn here in Maryland will help us develop robust systems for monitoring changes in forest carbon, and their impacts on the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, that can be applied within the United States and globally."
GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH ON THE CARBON CONTENT OF U.S. FORESTS
NASA has been tasked by Congress to develop methods to support carbon monitoring through its network of satellites and other data sources. One goal of CMS is to develop prototype national products for the Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) of changes in carbon emissions that result from changes in land use and other anthropogenic activities.
CREATING A FRAMEWORK FOR GLOBAL CARBON MONITORING
Through a United Nations Framework Council on Climate Change, the international community has made steady progress in the limitation of emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere resulting from deforestation and degradation. This REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) provides a mechanism for limiting emissions from developing countries through payments. Central to REDD is the development of MRV capabilities that provide a means for reliable and transparent monitoring of CO2 emissions through forest loss, as well as removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through forest regrowth, a process called carbon sequestration.
In the case of REDD, avoided deforestation is key. Countries such as the United States who pay REDD countries for reforestation and avoided deforestation must have a mechanism for verifying that illegal forest activity is not occurring. The development of this mechanism is a major goal of CMS. Within the United States, states may soon be mandated to track the carbon emission and sequestration associated with forests. For example, California is currently implementing a "cap and trade" market. The success of this market is based on verifying the value of particular forest carbon offsets. Such efforts must be able to value the carbon in individual trees, and for younger trees, to predict how much carbon they will sequester if they are left to grow instead of being harvested. Such verification efforts have traditionally been done by hand, using tape measures to measure the diameter of trees- a costly and impractical approach.
Dubayah notes that "Congress has shown great foresight in directing NASA to improve this process by leveraging NASA's vast observational and modeling resources as well as the commercial sector's capability to provide airborne data. If we can achieve sufficient accuracy using observations from commercial aircraft and space, it will revolutionize our ability to support national and international efforts to combat global warming and conserve the economic and ecological value of our forest resources."
To both provide a robust mechanism for monitoring our own carbon resources, as well as providing the foundation for REDD activities, Congress mandated NASA to begin implementation of the CMS in 2010. UMD participated in a Phase I activity in which researchers demonstrated the ability to map forest biomass of three counties in Maryland using airborne laser data that measure the heights of trees. These data were also used to run an ecosystem model that predicts carbon emissions now and in the future. As a result of these efforts, UMD was competitively awarded a Phase II grant to map the entire state.
University researchers are developing a simple framework for assessing aboveground forest carbon that can be replicated by other states nationwide and also could be implemented in REDD countries. The research will provide the first wall-to-wall mapping of forest cover and forest carbon at fine spatial resolutions. In addition to providing key information on carbon, the maps are also critical for other environmental concerns, such as protecting habitat and improving water quality. Interestingly, the maps will also provide detailed information on shading by trees and the quality of suburban and urban park spaces, both of which have been shown to impact housing valuations.
"Predicting the impacts of deforestation and subsequent regrowth on carbon resources in tropical regions has been a holy grail because there is so much uncertainty. REDD countries are looking to the United States and others to help them develop efficient measuring and valuation mechanisms that will allow them to participate in REDD. Yet within the United States, surprisingly, we have nowhere near the capability we need to help individual landowners, many of whom have projects that are just a few acres in size, value their resources," Professor Dubayah said. "By developing robust assessment methodologies, our research helps build this capability locally and nationally. NASA is then in a much better position to transfer the expertise developed In CMS to other countries and thereby support U.S. policy interests surrounding climate treaty mechanisms such as REDD."
Dubayah continues: "But it's really easy to bring this research back down to the individual level. Today, many are concerned about their 'carbon footprint'. So, for example, if someone is thinking of cutting down some trees in their backyard, we can predict the impacts of that activity in terms of carbon. Just as we are aware of the wattage of our light bulbs, or the fuel efficiency of cars, we need to become aware of the importance of conserving and enhancing our forest resources, even in urban and suburban areas. Doing so has been extraordinarily difficult because we have not been able to quantify the carbon content of our forests at the local scales at which impacts occur. By mapping carbon at these fine scales, and then aggregating upwards to county, state and eventually national and international levels, we will provide the quantitative basis by which climate treaty mechanisms can be proposed and verified."
Maryland's major partners in these activities include the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Vermont, Sigma Space of Greenbelt, Md., and GeoDigital International, Inc. The Forest Service has in place a nationwide network of permanent plots as part of its Forest Inventory Analysis program; its employees will visit these plots in Maryland, providing the most up-to-date data available for validation of the state biomass product.
In addition, Sigma Space is developing a new airborne laser system that promises to map forest structure for large areas at reasonable cost. Their technology, if adequately demonstrated, has large implications for REDD as one of the major limitations of providing accurate estimates of biomass in REDD countries is the cost of airborne laser surveys. GeoDigital Inc. specializes in airborne, laser-based surveys of forest carbon at very fine scales, and has pioneered systems that greatly enhance the ability of landowners to visualize and measure their forest resources.
The project's principal investigator is Professor Ralph Dubayah with co-investigators Professor George Hurtt; Richard Birdsey of the U.S. Forest Service; Jarlath O'Neill-Dunne, director of the University of Vermont's Spatial Analysis Laboratory; Sigma Space Corporation and GeoDigitial Inc.
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