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04.21.2020 | Earth Intelligence

Looking Outside the Stratosphere to Solve Our Planet’s Greatest Challenge

By: Elias Ayrey, Head Scientist and Diego Saez Gil, CEO and founder of Pachama

Read Time: 5 minutes

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges humanity faces in the twenty-first century. From United Nations Summits to sustainability programs at Fortune 500 companies, entities across the globe are beginning to pledge to find ways to address this challenge.

As organizations respond, many are looking to reach “net-zero emissions,” that is taking as much carbon out of the atmosphere as one produces. But the most innovative global leaders are going further and committing to draw more carbon out of the air than they contribute to it. That is because not only must emissions be reduced, by developing alternative fuels and increasing alternative energy sources, but carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere to reach international climate goals.

Forests represent one of the most effective solutions to climate change. Standing forests recapture 15% of CO2 emissions produced by human activities today and there is potential for reforestation, which could recapture up to 200 giga-tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.

Pachama, a company focused on restoring forests to solve climate change, uses emerging technologies and artificial intelligence to scale this solution. A key technology is Maxar’s high-resolution satellite imagery, an often-overlooked means of measuring and monitoring the Earth’s forests. As trees grow, they sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, absorbing some of the CO2 emitted by humanity. When trees are cut down, they decay and release all of their trapped carbon back into the atmosphere, compounding the problem of climate change. It is therefore imperative that we protect the Earth’s forests, and restore them to their former extent.

Quantifying the amount of carbon stored in a forest is an important first step towards doing this. Today this measurement is mostly manual, accomplished by sending field crews into the forest to measure thousands of trees. A more recent alternative is the use of airborne LiDAR, which provides a 3D measurement of the forest canopy that can inform scientists about exactly how large the trees are (and thus how much carbon they have stored). Airborne LiDAR can provide us with all the information we need to measure forest carbon, but it’s expensive! Even the act of flying an aircraft at low altitude over large areas emits a considerable amount of CO2.

This is why Pachama has partnered with Maxar. The WorldView constellation provides two key measurements needed to quantify the forest:

  • Color data can be used to infer photosynthesis. Because trees absorb red light, but reflect infrared light, the difference between the two can tell us how much photosynthesis is taking place.
  • Structural information can be used to infer size. Maxar’s WorldView satellites collect imagery at the highest commercial resolution, which allows us to measure tree crown sizes. This is critical in determining how much carbon the tree is storing.
This height map of the forest canopy, made using airborne LiDAR, helps artificial intelligence algorithms understand biomass on the ground. Pachama hopes to use Maxar imaging to help recreate these maps across a wider area.

Pachama is taking it a step further. Because Maxar images the Earth from multiple angles, we use a process called photogrammetry to construct a 3D image, much like LiDAR. This is actually the same process that your brain uses to determine the distance of objects (using the two offset images of each eye).

Thus, Maxar’s WorldView imagery informs us of color, size, shape and the heights of tree crowns. Pachama uses AI algorithms to combine all of this information. These algorithms are designed to work on 3D data, and some are the very same algorithms used in self-driving cars. The result is an estimate of forest carbon that is nearly as good as measuring every tree by hand.

Forest biomass (linked to carbon) is mapped over northeastern United States. In this map, red areas have the densest aboveground biomass, indicating that more trees are present and more carbon is stored in these areas.

But what does Pachama do with this information? Partnering with landowners and forest carbon project developers, Pachama measures and monitors forests that are pledged to preservation and growth. Pachama works with forests that have carbon credits issued by verification bodies such as Verra or American Carbon Registry. By providing an additional layer of verification and monitoring for organizations looking to buy these credits, Pachama brings further transparency to this market. Looking forward, Pachama is crafting tools using these imaging technologies that will allow landowners to more easily issue carbon credits for forest restoration. Increasing access to carbon markets incentivizes landowners to plant and preserve more forests, bit by bit removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Pachama and Maxar’s capabilities provide transparency and accountability to these projects, and are key to scaling this solution up.

This is just one example of calling upon space-based technology to mitigate the effects of the Earth’s climate change crisis. Applications and possibilities are vast. Given the scale of the problem, it is important to keep an open mind and look for opportunities not just in all corners of the world, but space too. Climate change won’t be solved on land alone.

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