The Secret Lives of Plants

Scientists plan to develop a three-dimensional map of Earth’s vegetation.

By knowing the extent of forests from existing maps, as well as the heights of the canopy from the new instruments, researchers will then be able to estimate how much plant matter — and therefore how much carbon — is present. As trees grow, they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, making forests a key player in the global carbon cycle. Over time, these missions can help give scientists clues to how much carbon is being absorbed by growing forests, and how it’s being released into the atmosphere through forest fires and deforestation.

Mr. Tom Neumann said, “Combining ICESat-2 with GEDI, we’re going to have a new view of the state of the biosphere on our planet if you can separate those two — the photons reflected from the ground, from the photons reflected from the tops of the trees — you can measure tree height, which is really cool.” He is the deputy project scientist for the ICESat-2 project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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