Stanford, CAA lack of technology needed to explore and monitor vast regions of tropical rain forest has been a critical bottleneck for Earth scientists, conservationists, and forest managers. As a result, we have limited understanding of the composition and function of these forests and how they are responding to clearing, invasive plants, climate change, and other threats. Gregory Asner and his team at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology recently created a new approach, part of the Carnegie Spectranomics Project, which can determine the chemical and structural properties and even the diversity of species in unprecedented detail over broad swaths of rain forests from aircraft. In a commitment to support this new science of airborne forest ecology, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded Asner a $5.2-million grant to advance the instrument technology required to make rain forest exploration and monitoring a reality.


The new technology is called High-fidelity Imaging Spectroscopy (HiFIS). It is part of the Carnegie Spectranomics Project and a major improvement of instrumentation already established aboard the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO)–a unique airborne mapping system that can inventory and probe rain forest vegetation over nearly 40,000 acres per day. The highly portable CAO is flown aboard a fixed-wing aircraft. It uses waveform LiDAR (light detection and ranging) system that maps the 3-dimensional structure of vegetation and combines it with spectroscopic imaging. By analyzing many wavelengths of reflected light, this imaging reveals a forest’s biochemistry in stunningly beautiful 3-D maps. Although already pathbreaking and successful, the existing system lacks several critical features needed for the most detailed chemical and taxonomic mapping.


“Infrared reflectances of tropical forest canopies are often unique signatures for species,” noted Asner. “This generous grant, combined with funds from other sources, will be used to develop the new HiFIS instrumentation with vastly improved infrared sensing technology. This new technology will help us to capture previously hidden ‘chemical fingerprints’ of rain forest species. My hope is to take the science, conservation, and management of these diverse ecosystems to levels only imagined until now. It will be a new era in the rain forest research.”


The Carnegie Spectranomics Project plans to map rain forests in Africa, Southeast Asia, Amazonia, the Caribbean, and the western Pacific. The Moore-supported High-Fidelity Imaging Spectrometer sub-component will be developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and integrated with the existing Carnegie LiDAR system to create the Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System, or AToMS. The existing instrument system, which successfully imaged complex ecosystems in Hawaii and South Africa, was enabled by generous grants from the W. M. Keck Foundation and Carnegie trustee William R. Hearst, III. The MacArthur Foundation has also provided a $1.8-million grant to build the database of spectranomic vegetation signatures.


The team is also constructing a database of plant chemical fingerprints by collecting plants on the ground and calibrating their chemistry with spectroscopic measurements from the air to establish a library of thousands of individual species.