The Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), developed by GregAsner, is a fixed-wing aircraft that sweeps laser light across the vegetation canopy to image it in brilliant 3-D. The data can determine the location and size of each tree at a resolution of 3.5 feet (1.1 meter), a level of detail that is unprecedented. By combining field surveys with this airborne mapping and high-resolution satellite monitoring the team has been able to detail myriad ecological features of forests around the world.
As one example, Carnegie scientists with the Peruvian Ministry of Environment mapped the true extent of gold mining in the biologically diverse region of Madre de Dios in the Peruvian Amazon. The team found that the geographic extent of mining has increased 400% from 1999 to 2012 and that the average annual rate of forest loss has tripled since the Great Recession of 2008. Until this study, thousands of small, clandestine mines that have boomed since the economic crisis have gone unmonitored.
The team is also the first to map the carbon stocks in individual countries in high-resolution, which could provide the foundation for future market-based carbon economies. The first such map was for Panama (left), the second was for Perú (right). The carbon maps also reveal the high ecological diversity in these jurisdictions providing critical input to studies of deforestation and forest degradation for conservation, land use, and enforcement purposes. Numerous other studies have been conducted using this technology.