BIOMASS mission given go ahead to launch in 2020
7 May 2013
The European Space Agency's (ESA) Earth Observation Programme Board has today given the go-ahead for a new €400m Earth Observation mission that will measure global forest biomass in unparalleled detail.
BIOMASS is scheduled to launch in 2020 and will produce the first accurate maps of tropical, temperate and boreal forest biomass from space. These maps will help scientists address fundamental questions about changes in forest structure, especially in tropical regions, where ground data are scant. They'll also help put a figure on the carbon emissions resulting from deforestation and land-use change.
"As trees grow, they take in carbon and store it. But during deforestation this carbon is released into the atmosphere. This is just one way carbon cycles between different storage sites and as this global carbon cycle becomes unbalanced more carbon is being released from storage into the atmosphere, ultimately affecting on our climate. Understanding how the amount of living material - biomass - in our global forests changes over time is necessary for improving present and future assessments of the global carbon cycle, and therefore our climate," says Professor Shaun Quegan of the University of Sheffield who, along with Dr Thuy Le Toan from the Centre d'Etudes Spatiales de la Biosphere, Toulouse, helped conceive the idea for the mission eight years ago and is one of the principal investigators now supporting it.
Currently, most estimates of biomass used in research models come from ground-based measurements. But because these measurements are scarce, particularly in the tropics, the models give radically different projections of the future carbon cycle and, therefore, how the climate might change.
The BIOMASS mission will help overcome this problem, by providing frequent, accurate and consistent biomass measurements, helping to validate and improve current earth system models. It will do this by using a 70-centimetre wavelength radar sensor to probe both the height of forests and how much wood they contain at a scale of 200 metres.
Professor Mathew Williams of the University of Edinburgh is a member of the BIOMASS Mission Advisory Group. He hopes this could be one of the first satellites to provide data which will be useful to a range of stakeholders, not just researchers.
"BIOMASS will bring accessible information to climate researchers and earth system scientists, but also to forest managers in places like the tropics, so they can examine the impact of fires on their forest stocks, or the effects of population expansion at forest edges. This instrument would track forest changes, and then measure the impact they have on releasing carbon," he says.
As well as giving us an unparalleled and accurate insight into forest biomass, this mission should provide information on ice-sheet motion, the Earth's upper atmosphere and subsurface geology in arid regions.
The mission could run for up to five years from launch. Scientists anticipate collecting useful data as early as three months into the mission, as long as calibration experiments go well.
Despite being a space mission, the success of BIOMASS rests on the active involvement of scientists collecting biomass measurements on the ground. Their data will be invaluable when the mission launches to check, test and verify the accuracy of the data the mission delivers.
At the moment, BIOMASS would not be able to operate within a region that impinges on the United States Department of Defense Space Object Tracking Radar system, which has sites across the US and Europe. If negotiations between ESA and the US government cannot resolve this conflict, the mission may be unable to operate across North America and Europe, but here we already have well-developed, extensive knowledge of biomass from forest inventory.
The BIOMASS mission is also hoping to contribute to the United Nations REDD Programme - an international effort to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.
"The purpose of REDD is to encourage better tropical forest management so that we can manage emissions from deforestation. But a major problem is knowing what biomass is there in the first place. Without the BIOMASS mission, our chances of achieving an international agreement are non-existent, as no one will be able to check numbers," says Quegan.
"The Earth Observation Programme Board gave its full approval to the selection of BIOMASS but has also requested that ESA ensure the best value for money to Member States by confirming implementation of the mission when the full industrial proposal is available. This shows the importance which is attached to the efficient execution of the mission by European industry in times where programme finance is under pressure," says Volker Liebig, ESA's director of Earth observation programmes, of the decision.
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
Mob: 07917 557215
Researchers' contact details:
Professor Shaun Quegan
University of Sheffield
Tel: 0 222 3778
Professor Mathew Williams
University of Edinburgh
Tel: +1 720 304 2149
1. Last month (March 2013) the European Space Agency Advisory Committee (ESAC) recommended that the board choose to implement BIOMASS, as it is the most scientifically convincing of three missions proposed to the board. ESAC's recommendation has never been ignored, without exception.
2. BIOMASS is fully funded by ESA using contributions from twenty European member states. It is one of ESA's Earth Explorer core missions, whose aim is to provide tools for further understanding and monitoring our planet. Other Earth Explorer missions include Cryosat-2, SMOS and GOCE which look at sea-ice thickness, ocean salinity and soil moisture, and variations in the Earth's gravitational field, respectively.
3. Both Professor Quegan and Professor Williams are principle investigators for the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO), one of the Natural Environment Research Council's (NERC) research centres. NERC funded the feasibility testing stage of the BIOMASS mission and continues to support it through the NCEO's mission support awards.
Press release: 04/13
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