January 27, 2012
A Birdseye View Of Biodiversity In 3D
In yet another triumph of modern technology, scientists say they´ve been able to use an advanced system of lasers to study the biodiversity and structure of Amazonian rainforests in unprecedented detail.
Over three miles above the Peruvian rainforest, a team of scientists crammed themselves into a small research aircraft along with a laser-emitting device known as a Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging). The Lidar was used to bounce laser beams off the lush green canopy below at a rate of 400,000 times per second, allowing the researchers to reconstruct dazzlingly colorful three-dimensional maps of the forest below.
The images were created by channeling the returning light into a spectrometer kept at -204 degrees Fahrenheit which records the optical and chemical characteristics of the forest miles below. While the naked eye is able to perceive only an undifferentiated sea of endless green, the high-tech equipment registers a richly diverse 3D image in a panoply of colors.
“The technology that we have here gives us a first-ever look at the Amazon in its full three-dimensional detail, over very large regions,” explained Greg Asner, a tropical ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University and lead researcher of the groundbreaking technique.
Asner went on went on to explain the significance of this new technique for the future of conservation.
“[It´s] the critical information that´s missing for managing these systems, for conserving them and for developing policy to better utilize the Amazon basin as a resource, while still protecting what it has in terms of its biological diversity,” he told the Guardian newspaper.
Capable of scanning and imaging over 140 square miles per hour, Asner explained that the new technology can be used to track the effects that various changes have on biodiversity, including man-made deforestation and soil degradation as well as natural disasters like the devastating drought of 2010.
Researchers already anticipate that the new technique could be employed by the UN´s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation initiative (REDD) to monitor the world´s tropical forests and provide funding to the most vulnerable areas.
According to Asner: “REDD cannot exist without scientifically monitored data on carbon stock.”
President and director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) in Brazil Daniel Nepstad, has described Anser as being “in a league of his own” in terms of helping REDD to overcome the technical challenges associated with its stated purpose.
Because the new equipment doesn´t require researchers to plunge directly into often inaccessible tropical forests in order to study them, Asner and his crew were able to scan some of the remotest, least studied corners of the Peruvian Amazon.
The result, Asner told Guardian, was that they got a peek inside of one of nature´s “most incredible portfolios of biodiversity.”
Yet Asner also noted that not all of their findings were quite as inspiring. He noted that the team also spotted numerous instances of unlawful gold mining near the Madre de Dios region of Peru´s rainforests, which is already thought to be the main cause of deforestation in the region.
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