Kicking off with the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), which was launched in March 2009, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Earth Explorer missions are intended to provide a greater understanding of the Earth and the interactions between various natural Earth processes. “Biomass” is the seventh Earth Explorer satellite to get the nod and will provide and accurate picture of the amount of biomass and carbon stored in the world’s forests.

The €400-million (approx. US$526 million) Biomass mission is scheduled to launch in 2020 and will produce the first accurate maps of tropical, temperate and boreal forest biomass using a 70-centimetre wavelength radar sensor to probe both the height of forests and how much wood they contain at a scale of 200 meters. These maps will provide a greater understanding of the role forests play in Earth’s carbon cycle and in climate change.

Most current biomass estimates rely on ground-based measurements, which are scarce in many areas, such as the tropics. Professor Shaun Quegan from the University of Sheffield, who is one of the mission’s principal investigators, first conceived of the Biomass mission concept in 2005 to overcome this problem by providing frequent, accurate and consistent biomass measurements.

“As trees grow, they take in carbon and store it. But during deforestation this carbon is released into the atmosphere,” said Professor Quegan. “This is just one way carbon cycles between different storage sites and as this global carbon cycle becomes unbalanced more carbon is being released from storage into the atmosphere, ultimately affecting on our climate. Understanding how the amount of living material – biomass – in our global forests changes over time is necessary for improving present and future assessments of the global carbon cycle, and therefore our climate.”

Accurate information on deforestation and land degradation in developing countries is not only crucial for research models but also for local and international efforts to reduce carbon emissions, such as the implementation of the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative.

“Biomass will bring accessible information to climate researchers and earth system scientists, but also to forest managers in places like the tropics, so they can examine the impact of fires on their forest stocks, or the effects of population expansion at forest edges,” said Professor Mathew Williams of the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Biomass Mission Advisory Group. “This instrument would track forest changes, and then measure the impact they have on releasing carbon.”

It is also expected that the mission will provide information on the Earth’s upper atmosphere, subsurface geology in arid regions, and rates of ice-sheet and glacier motion.

Currently, the mission won’t be able to operate across North America and Europe as the satellite would impinge on sites of the US Department of Defense Space Object Tracking Radar system. However, in the event that negotiations between ESA and the US government are unable to clear the way for Biomass, there is already well-developed, extensive knowledge of biomass from forest inventory for these regions.

The Biomass mission will run for up to five years after launch, with scientists expecting to collect useful data as early as three months after launch, provided the calibration experiments go smoothly.

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