The European Space Agency's BIOMASS mission is scheduled to launch in 2023 to provide a space-based survey of Earth's forests, allowing scientists to monitor forest biomass and quantify the impacts of deforestation on climate change.
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Why is it Crucial to Monitor Earth's Forest Biomass?
The COP26 pledge on degradation and deforestation from more than 100 leaders representing approximately 85 percent of the world's forests is a positive step in restoring the balance between carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and absorbed by forests.
Forests significantly impact climate because of their influences on carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas. Forests reduce atmospheric CO2 levels by absorbing carbon via photosynthesis and storing it in plant biomass.
However, most of the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere due to forest degradation and deforestation, particularly in tropical areas, accelerating climate change. Recent research indicates that the Amazon rainforest releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it stores.
Despite the new pledge in place, monitoring the global cycle is necessary to gain insight into the effects of forest transformations on our climate.
The BIOMASS Mission: How Will it Work?
BIOMASS, the ESA's space umbrella satellite, will employ a new measurement approach to offer new data on forest height and biomass from space.
It will be the first satellite to carry a completely polarimetric P-band radar. Unlike previous missions, the new 70 cm wavelength radar will enable the BIOMASS mission to penetrate the forest layer and map the hidden roots and branches.
Once in space, the satellite will survey the Earth, piercing through canopies and creating a 3D map of worldwide forests. The mission's data will be made public to give everyone consistent, unbiased assessments of all of Earth's biomass.
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Significance of the BIOMASS Forest Mission
Despite the importance of tropical forests to the climate, there is a lack of data on their biomass due to their size, diversity, isolation, and inaccessibility. They also have a greater biomass density than most of the well-studied forests of North America, Eurasia, and Europe.
BIOMASS is designed to study these high tropical forests from space with a powerful reflector-antenna radar. This radar maintains a delicate equilibrium between sensitivity to biomass and technological viability in the ionosphere.
The mission's scientists emphasized the significance of BIOMASS as a means of bringing attention to the consequences of global warming. The length of the mission will also allow climate change experts to better monitor climate change's progress and prepare for its implications.
Professor Shaun Quegan, the mission's lead scientist, elaborated on the significance of BIOMASS:
This mission will give us unprecedented insight into the structure of forests across the world and how changes in forests, both losses from deforestation and gains due to regrowth and reforestation, are affecting the amount of carbon dioxide going into our atmosphere. The study will essentially weigh forests – it will tell us their weight and height, and we will be able to see how they are changing over time.
The BIOMASS mission's data will reduce key uncertainties in current estimations of carbon fluxes and stocks on land, particularly carbon fluxes related to forest degradation, land-use change, and forest regeneration. It will also provide 3D forest mapping using radar tomography.
Secondary Advantages of the BIOMASS Project
In addition to providing unmatched and precise insight into forest biomass, the space umbrella will examine topography to determine where water formerly flowed beneath the Earth's surface and potentially discover sites of archaeological significance.
This mission will also provide data on ice-sheet motion, the Earth's upper atmosphere, and underlying geology in dry places.
Historical Background of the BIOMASS Mission
Although BIOMASS will be the first satellite to launch a P-band radar into orbit, the technology was initially tested in the late 1980s over woodland in Eastern England. However, at that time, such a system seemed unlikely to ever reach space because the specific radar frequencies were set aside for military use.
ESA encouraged the International Telecommunications Union to provide a small window in this delicate region of the electromagnetic spectrum for scientific research.
Conclusion and Future Outlooks of the Biomass Mission
Despite being a space mission, the project's success depends on scientists actively participating in biomass surveys on the ground. When the project launches, their data will be crucial for ensuring the integrity of the satellite's data.
The powerful reflector antenna of the satellite has already been fabricated, and with a targeted launch in 2023, the mission is in its last stages of development.
The BIOMASS mission will soon play a crucial role in providing unique data on the state of our forests, their dynamic change over time, and enhance our understanding of the carbon cycle and climate change.
References and Further Reading
Amos, J. (2022) Biomass: Giant 'space brolly' to weigh Earth's forests. [Online]. BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-62650129 (Accessed on 15 September 2022).
ESA. (2022) Biomass: ESA's Forest Mission. [Online]. Available at: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth/FutureEO/Biomass (Accessed on 15 September 2022).
ESA. (2022) Biomass: Weighing Earth's Forest from Space. [Online]. Available at: https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Videos/2021/11/Biomass_weighing_Earth_s_forest_from_space (Accessed on 15 September 2022).
Gatti, L.V., Basso, L.S., Miller, J.B. et al. (2021) Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03629-6
Grantham Scholars & Quegan. S. (2016) Space mission BIOMASS to 'weigh' Earth's forests moves closer to launch. [Online]. Grantham Centre at the University of Sheffield. Available at: https://grantham.sheffield.ac.uk/space-mission-to-weigh-earths-forests-moves-closer-to-launch/ (Accessed on 16 September 2022).
Quegan. S. (2022) How to weigh a forest from space? [Online]. The University of Sheffield. Available at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/research/biomass-mission (Accessed on 14 September 2022).
United Nations. (2021) Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use. [Online].United Nations Climate Change Conference UK 2021. Available at: https://ukcop26.org/glasgow-leaders-declaration-on-forests-and-land-use/ (Accessed on 15 September 2022).
Valero, B. (2022) UK-built satellite to 'weigh' Earth's forests. [Online]. Engineering and Technology. Available at: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2022/08/uk-built-satellite-to-weigh-earths-forests/ (Accessed on 15 September 2022).