NAU uses NASA lasers to study rainforests

Scientists are using NASA technology to help them learn more about the Amazon rainforests.
Published: Jul. 27, 2023 at 8:34 PM MST
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FLAGSTAFF, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) Technology in space is uncovering answers to a mystery in the rainforest. Scientists at Northern Arizona University are studying how climate change will impact our tropical environments. The tool they’re using shoots a laser from the International Space Station into the Earth’s forests thousands of times a day. The result is detailed maps like we’ve never seen before.

Back in 2018, NASA launched the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation or GEDI. It can identify accurate signs of ecosystem dynamics, carbon storage and biodiversity that cannot be easily seen from a typical satellite. ”We measure tree diameters, and we can say with this diameter where the top of the canopy is and how big that canopy is,” said Chris Doughty, NAU associate professor of ecoinformatics. “Based on that, we can say, let’s say, we have a thousand trees measured. How does the structure of those thousand trees compare to what the satellite is telling us,”

This is helping researchers debunk theories. So far, they’ve found most trees have dense leaves further down instead of at the canopy top. ”If you have a nice layer of leaves at the top, it’s shady up there. However, if most of those leaves are kind of in the middle, then that matters for these millions of species that live in the tropics,” Doughty said.

Researchers are also using the laser to track species to see how they can keep populations alive while global temperatures continue to rise. “What we want to do is take all those times we’ve seen those monkeys and say, ‘That’s related to this forest structure and this temperature,’ and we are actually able to create a map of where these monkeys live so we can basically preserve them better,” Doughty said.

What also makes this unique is its ability to discover something new that scientists have studied for years, which NAU says is quite rare in this field. And it couldn’t come at a more perfect time, with current temperatures in the Amazon peaking at 97 degrees when the average is in the 70s.

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