Scientists study tropical forests

Astronomers are to help global change researchers measure how Earth’s tropical forests are changing.

Edinburgh astronomers will join colleagues from across Europe, and tropical forest researchers from the UK, in the project.

Scientists taking part hope that data from earth observation satellites can be converted into accurate global information on key aspects of planetary change, such as how quickly tropical forest areas are changing.

Scientists need this information to produce reliable estimates of the resulting rates of carbon emissions and species loss.

Forest studies

The project, known as ASTROTROP, is intended to pave the way for a Pan-Tropical Forest Observatory.

It tackles the two main constraints on planetary measurement.

These are lack of collaboration between different scientific disciplines, and technological difficulties that arise when handling big data.

Astronomers taking part will be led from Edinburgh, while forest experts will be co-ordinated by the University of Leeds.

Combining data

Scientists taking part will combine numerous spatial databases on changes in forest area, carbon and species content in different regions.

They will do this by adapting a technique from astronomy, in which software enables combination of multiple digital maps from different locations across the world using the web.

The data is standardised so that astronomers can use a mix and match approach from various datasets.

Tracking change

The ASTROTROP project will test the feasibility of using this software to monitor changes in the world’s tropical forests.

Running the software on a powerful central computer would allow data on forest areas collected by satellites, and processed by teams of scientists across the world, to be combined with data on the distribution of species and carbon within forests, measured by hundreds of other researchers.

It is very satisfying to be able to share experiences from very different areas. The similarities are closer than we thought. For example, the number of stars in the Milky Way is very similar to the number of trees in tropical forests on Earth.

Professor Andy LawrenceSchool of Physics and Astronomy