One of the largest trees on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. Tropical forests pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere where it causes global warming and store it as wood. But the amount of carbon stored varies depending on tree species, age, climate conditions and other factors.
By conserving and replanting forests, the world buys time until it brings other climate and sustainability solutions online. As a critical step toward this goal, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) received a $12 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund to support GEO-TREES. This international consortium is the first worldwide system to independently ensure the accuracy of satellite monitoring of forest biomass—a way to measure carbon stored in trees—in all forest types and conditions. The GEO-TREES alliance offers a freely accessible database that integrates on-the-ground measurements of individual trees with terrestrial and aerial laser scans (LiDAR) of forests—a highly accurate way to verify forest carbon estimates based on satellite images.
“The GEO-TREES project is as exciting as it is essential for our detailed understanding of the interplay between tropical forests and carbon capture,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch. “Scientific research has been at the heart of the Smithsonian’s mission for more than 176 years, and the grant from the Bezos Earth Fund demonstrates the value of support and collaboration in the search for solutions to our planet’s shared challenges.”
“The Bezos Earth Fund is pleased to support and partner on this powerful project to use decades of long-term data to understand forest carbon,” said Cristián Samper, managing director and leader for nature solutions at the Bezos Earth Fund. “There are very few places like the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where the tropical rainforest has been studied for 100 years. The longevity of tropical research at the Smithsonian, together with the expansion of a global network of forest study sites, will help address the climate crisis we face in a way not possible anywhere else.”
At the heart of the GEO-TREES system is the Smithsonian’s ForestGEO network, directed by STRI staff scientist, Stuart Davies, working closely with partners around the globe. With 40 years’ experience rooted in the tropics, ForestGEO is the most extensive, long-term, large-scale, forest-monitoring network in the world, representing researchers at 76 study sites in 29 countries. The ForestGEO project is distinguished by its emphasis on partnership, incorporating the need for data with local conservation and management goals.
Space agencies worldwide are putting satellites into orbit to image forests in real time, but for scientists to verify carbon-storage numbers from these images, they must calibrate the satellite measurements against high-quality ground-based measurements. To gather high-quality measurements, scientists are intensively studying forest biomass reference sites in mature and younger forests, leveraging several partner forest-plot networks.
Most of the grant will be spent in tropical countries—many of them middle- and low-income—not only for data collection, but to strengthen capacity for local stakeholders and early-career scientists. This effort will enable them to combine field data collection with cutting-edge technology to monitor and evaluate the carbon stored in their forests.
“Tropical forests are the most important, best-understood, carbon-capture devices in the world,” said Joshua Tewksbury, director of STRI, which will administer the funds via its ForestGEO program. “But to make large-scale carbon capture a reality, we need to engage all sectors of society. And we can only do that if we can clearly show where the carbon is—and how carbon stocks change in real time, at scales that landowners, countries and investors care about. The Smithsonian, with hundreds of partners around the world, has taken on the challenge of providing the definitive ground-based global forest database to make this work possible.”
Each tree species in the world is unique: a balsa tree’s soft wood stores much less carbon than an ebony or rosewood tree’s dense wood. The age of each forest and the species present—which vary wildly from place to place—affect how much carbon is stored. Trees absorb different amounts of carbon on sunny days compared with cloudy days, and carbon storage depends on available water and nutrients. Thus, quantifying the biomass of complex forests requires significant expertise.
“The Smithsonian recently launched Life on a Sustainable Planet, which harnesses all Smithsonian resources to focus on solutions for our changing planet,” said Ellen Stofan, Under Secretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian Institution. “The GEO-TREES project is a major component of that effort, and this grant from the Bezos Earth Fund helps us take a significant step forward in strengthening connections between people and nature.”
STRI, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit of the Smithsonian. The institute furthers the understanding of tropical biodiversity and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems. Watch STRI’s video and visit the institute on its website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates.
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