NERC Impact Awards 2018: 'Goldilocks' wavelength brings global biomass into focus

26 November 2018

Work has begun on a highly innovative satellite able to measure the amount of biomass locked in the world's forests and how this changes over time, paving the way for monitoring how deforestation and reforestation are affecting the climate globally.

Professor Shaun Quegan

Professor Shaun Quegan

Using radically new technology, BIOMASS will create 3D maps of the world's forests, measuring the weight of the wood held within them and the height of the trees, as well as making an accurate map of the terrain they are standing on. In arid areas of the planet, it will see right through to the underlying bedrock, allowing them to map the rock structure and search for subterranean reservoirs of water.

British researcher Professor Shaun Quegan, based at Sheffield University and belonging to the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO), was instrumental in the selection of BIOMASS for the European Space Agency's seventh Earth Explorer satellite. This paved the way for the UK's Airbus Defence & Space to successfully bid for the £192 million engineering contract, which will see the satellite launched and ready for action in 2022.

A crucial factor in the mission was identification of the perfect 'Goldilocks' wavelength. P-band waves, which are not too long and not too short, are just right to measure the biomass of trees while avoiding disruption of the data caused by an atmospheric layer called the ionosphere, a major stumbling block to producing images of the Earth using long wavelength space-based radars.

Read more about Professor Shaun Quegan's research in our Planet Earth article The Goldilocks effect: Weighing the world's forests.

Professor Quegan said:

The world's forests are huge, remote and hard to access, so global monitoring using in situ measurements is out of the question. So the question we asked was: Can we do this from space? The answer is yes, but only if we use a wavelength long enough to interact with the big branches and trunk, where most of the biomass sits. At these wavelengths, the leafy canopy becomes transparent and we see right down to the ground. However, if the wavelength is too long, the image will be totally destroyed by the ionosphere. BIOMASS operates on this critical edge. This 'Goldilocks' wavelength means we can see the wood, not the trees.

Professor Stephen Briggs, Chair of the Global Climate Observing System, said:

Managing forests is a key factor in the mitigation of climate change. The observations available from BIOMASS will provide new information on deforestation, and its reduction, to programmes such as REDD+ set up through the World Bank to provide funding to developing countries to support maintenance of their undisturbed forests.

The BIOMASS mission will provide exciting new information about critical aspects of our environment for the first time. Not only has Shaun been the guiding light behind this mission, but he has also developed much of the theory and understanding needed to take advantage of BIOMASS data.

Chris Lloyd, BIOMASS Project Manager at Airbus Defence & Space, said:

Airbus has been part of the development of the BIOMASS mission for over ten years and are delighted that the impact of Professor Quegan's work is being recognised by NERC. As the satellite prime contractor, Airbus is pleased to continue our close collaboration with UK scientists in delivering world class environmental science. The BIOMASS satellite provides the first systematic global map of forest biomass using a unique P-band radar. Airbus recognises the importance of the mission and the valuable contribution it will provide to the understanding of forests and their relationship with climate change.

NERC Director of Research & Innovation Dr Phil Heads said:

The BIOMASS satellite is a world first, offering unprecedented insight into the changing state of the world's forests. It is testament to the expertise of Professor Quegan that Airbus Defence & Space was able to secure the contract for this hugely-ambitious engineering project to be undertaken on British soil.

Professor Nick Monk, Head of the School of Mathematics & Statistics at the University of Sheffield, said:

I am delighted that Professor Sean Quegan's work has been recognised by the Natural Environment Research Council and shortlisted for a prestigious award. His work will enable an unprecedented insight into the structure of forests across the world and provide vital information to help us monitor climate change in the decades to come.

Professor Quegan's research has been shortlisted for the economic category of the 2018 NERC Impact Awards, which recognises the impact that a research project has had on the UK economy. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on 3 December 2018.


Further information

Ione Bingley
Press and Communications Officer
01793 411616
07864 972302


Notes

1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

2. The University of Sheffield, with almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, is one of the world's leading universities. A member of the UK's prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students, and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields. Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.