Mapping Rainforest Chemistry

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There are thousands of unknown species of plants and animals in the world’s rainforests. Plants that have been studied in the rainforest have been used as medications, as food, and the incredible diversity of this ecosystem shows just how unique our Earth is. There is an extraordinary amount of information we still don’t know about the rainforest, but scientists and researchers are still working to understand more about how these regions can help humanity.

Scientists have been studying the chemistry of rainforests, and have been able to determine 36 different types of forest based on chemical signatures. These differing chemical makeups show the incredible diversity of rainforests in all their glory.

Mapping Rainforest Chemistry Using Laser-guided Imaging Spectroscopy

Researchers mapped 23 chemicals that are released by the rainforests in Peru with laser-guided imaging spectroscopy. Using airplanes, researchers mapped the tree canopy and scanned areas that are nearly impossible to access on foot. Using a chemical footprint, they were also able to see variations in the tree canopy that is undetectable using other imaging methods.

Hectare of tropical forest in Peru showing changes in chemical traits obtained using Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) laser-guided imaging spectroscopy. Image: Asner et. al, 2017.

Hectare of tropical forest in Peru showing changes in chemical traits obtained using Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) laser-guided imaging spectroscopy. Image: Asner et. al, 2017.

Researchers divided the 76 million hectares of rainforest used in the study into 100-kilometer squares. These smaller units had their levels of water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium measured, resulting in about 36 different forest types.

Differentiating these areas of forest could allow for better methods of rainforest conservation to occur around the world. The imaging techniques used in Peru are now being used in the rainforests of Ecuador and Borneo, in hopes of expanding the knowledge base of rainforests around the world.

The study:

Asner, G. P., Martin, R. E., Knapp, D. E., Tupayachi, R., Anderson, C. B., Sinca, F., … & Llactayo, W. (2017). Airborne laser-guided imaging spectroscopy to map forest trait diversity and guide conservationScience355(6323), 385-389.

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