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Mapping diversity Using planes and lasers for a biodiversity checkup

Researchers at the University of Zurich have developed a new system to measure the diversity and health of forests with a laser scanner mounted on an aeroplane. (SRF,

Studies have demonstrated that the stability and productivity of a forest's ecosystem correlates to plant diversity. Generally, forests that are more biodiverse are more resistant to diseases, insects, fire, storms and also able to cope with higher variations in environmental conditions.

Until now, keeping track of plants in forests had involved some very labour-intensive fieldwork. 

The University of Zurich and the California Institute of Technology / NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory jointly developed a new methodology to measure the diversity of forests remotely. The study was recently published in Natureexternal link magazine. 

The newly developed procedureexternal link involves a laser scanner mounted on a plane. It has enabled scientists to measure the size, shape and structure of the trees, including the canopy’s height, foliage and branch density. From this data, they are able to infer, for instance, how a forest absorbs sunlight to assimilate carbon dioxide.

In addition to the laser scanner, the approach involves the use of 'imaging spectroscopyexternal link' which allows scientists to find out more about the activity and health status of forest’s trees. It can be used to find out, for example, if a tree needs water and what strategies the tree is using to adapt to the environment.

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