UVA professor helping develop powerful forest mapping satellite

Biomass, set for launch in 2020, will use microwaves to map and measure the carbon load of the Earth’s forests on a scale never seen before. Photo courtesy European Space Agency. Biomass, set for launch in 2020, will use microwaves to map and measure the carbon load of the Earth’s forests on a scale never seen before. Photo courtesy European Space Agency.

Hank Shugart has been waiting a long time for a view from space.

Shugart,  UVA’s W.W. Corcoran Professor of Environmental Sciences, is a global forest ecologist whose work has made him a key consultant on Earth-mapping projects. He was with a crew of researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on February 1, 2003 to see a prototype satellite they’d been working on—an early draft of an orbiter that was to be so big that its only feasible route into orbit was a piggyback ride on a shuttle—return to Earth with the Columbia space shuttle. Instead, they watched a tragedy unfold.

“It was a dark moment,” Shugart said. After the initial horror at the loss of the shuttle’s crew on reentry came the sinking realization that the disaster would have wide-reaching effects on the space program. “It washed over you that some of this stuff we were working on wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “It was over.”

He was right. The subsequent dismantling of NASA’s shuttle program meant the end of that particular mapping project. Separate plans for a similar Bush-era satellite were also scuttled when funding evaporated.

But it looks like the third time’s the charm. Shugart is part of a team of scientists who won support from the European Space Agency for the development of a $525 million satellite called Biomass, set for launch in 2020, that will map the world’s forests in an effort to better understand the role they play in the global carbon cycle—and hence our climate.

“To really understand what’s going on with the atmosphere, you have to understand what’s going on with carbon dioxide, so you have to understand forests,” said Shugart, who has spent his career studying the flow of energy in global ecosystems. Forests represent a massive and active carbon storage pool, he said, breathing out and absorbing CO2 in vast quantities each year. Quantifying that exchange could offer insight into our shifting climate, but so far, nobody’s been able to get the full picture.

Biomass will change that, Shugart and his fellow researchers hope. The microwaves it beams down will penetrate cloud cover and measure the mass of living trees from the boreal forests of Russia to the Amazon, offering a detailed rendering at a resolution of a single hectare. In other words, it will weigh the carbon stored in forests, while at the same time drawing them in 3-D, from the ground to the canopy.

“This thing is going to help us understand the forest not as one big, green blob, but as millions of pieces, each doing a different thing over a long period of time,” said Shugart.

There are other benefits of Biomass beyond filling in missing data in the earth’s carbon-exchange equation, he said. A measure of tree height will help scientists pinpoint crucial habitat for endangered species and map the terrain and topography of remote areas long hidden from human eyes, and it will be an essential tool in tracking United Nations reforestation efforts in developing countries.

No wonder, then, that the ESA selected Shugart’s team’s proposal out of a score of other Earth-observation project candidates all jockeying for funding in recent years. And for Shugart, there’s personal significance in getting Biomass flying: It will be a long-awaited tool for testing the validity of the theories of forest ecology he’s spent decades developing. It’s knowledge we need more than ever, he said.

“We’re playing with big, complicated problems,” said Shugart, “some of which have answers that might not be pleasant.”