A breakthrough technology shoots laser beams at trees from ISS

'May the forest be with you.'
Chris Young
International Space Station orbiting Earth like planet.
International Space Station orbiting Earth like planet.gremlin/iStock
  • The GEDI system aboard the ISS shoots laser beams down at Earth to fight deforestation.
  • It helps to provide valuable information on the world's forests.
  • Space technology is critical to the fight against climate change.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is building new digital tools to help fight deforestation and climate change. One of these is the FAO's Framework for Ecosystem Monitoring (FERM) website, which uses satellite images to highlight the negative impact on forests worldwide.

Launched last year, the website's maps and data are accessible to the public. One of the primary sources for the Ferm website is NASA's Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) system. NASA's GEDI is pronounced like the word Jedi from Star Wars, and its tagline is "may the forest be with you".

The technology certainly lives up to its sci-fi namesake. The GEDI system is perched aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and it shoots laser beams at trees from the orbital laboratory.

Satellites give a 'full snapshot of Earth' every 4-5 days

In an interview with the BBC, Laura Duncanson, one of the leaders of the Gedi project from the University of Maryland's Department of Geographical Sciences, said, "we use the reflected energy to map forests in 3D, including their height, canopy density, and carbon content. This is an exciting new technology because for decades we have been able to observe deforestation from space, but now with GEDI, we can assign the carbon emissions associated with forest loss [for greater accuracy]."

Norwegian firm Planet Labs also contributes maps and data to the FERM project. The company operates more than 200 camera-equipped satellites. These take approximately 350 million photos of the Earth's surface daily, each showing a one-square-kilometer region of the Earth. FAO forestry officer Remi D'Annunzio said these technologies allow an until-recently unprecedented insight into the state of the world. "Basically, now, with all these publicly available satellites combined, we can get a full snapshot of the Earth every four to five days," he said.

Space technology used to fight climate change

According to data from the United Nations, roughly 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of the world's forests are lost yearly. The UN notes that deforestation has declined in recent years, though it remains a significant concern. Meanwhile, The World Wildlife Fund says deforestation accounts for 20 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. It adds that the fight against deforestation goes hand in hand with the battle to prevent the worst-case climate change scenario.

Some argue that the funds for space technologies should be used to fix our problems here on Earth. As the iconic science popularizer Carl Sagan once pointed out, this is an excluded middle fallacy. It doesn't have to be one or the other. What's more, space technologies can help to change the outcome. Part of that is using satellite imagery to shift public perception of the effects of climate change.

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