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Norwegian researchers have developed a unique technology for satellite-based forestry mapping and monitoring. (Photo: EADS Astrium)

Norwegian forestry managers are under a lot of pressure to make their operations even more profitable. A new, satellite-based radar technology may help to make forestry planning more efficient.
“Our members are under a lot of pressure to maintain acceptable levels of profitability by making forestry operations more efficient”, says Erik Lahnstein, Managing Director at the Norwegian Forestry Owners Association.
If this is to be achieved, cost-effective planning is a key factor. Currently, forestry managers map their properties using methods such as airborne laser scanning. This is a relatively expensive process, and can only be carried out every 10 to 15 years. A lot can happen to the forests in the meantime.

Extremely accurate

Recently, researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) at Ås have been working together with the German Airbus Defence & Space GmbH and Kjeller Innovation to introduce a system that provides extremely accurate calculations of forestry expansion and loss. The project is being funded as part of the Research Council of Norway’s FORNY programme.
Among other things, Airbus builds and operates the TanDEM-X twin Earth observation satellite system which maps the Earth’s surface in detail at intervals of 11 days using very accurate, high-resolution radar.

“But even with these radar data, the accurate calculation of forestry expansion and biomass volume is a complicated exercise”, says Svein Solberg, a Senior Research Scientist at NIBIO. Solberg has been responsible for development of the methodology behind the computations

Founded a company

Together with NIBIO and Kjeller Innovation, Solberg has recently founded the company Forest Vision, which will be responsible for introducing the technology to the market. Forest Vision has recently signed a joint cooperation agreement with Airbus, which is part of a public-private partnership with the German space agency DLR as owners and operators of the TanDEM-X satellites.

“All of Norway’s land area has more or less been mapped using airborne laser scanners”, says Solberg. “This is more accurate that radar mapping, but is expensive. Moreover, it can only be carried out every 10 to 15 years, and a lot can happen to the forests in the meantime. Our satellite data can be updated every week”, he says.

Besides, land topography in Norway has been mapped in so much detail that when radar data from treetops is available, combined with a knowledge of forestry type, it is possible to make accurate calculations of total biomass volumes.

“In such situations, we also use other input parameters, primarily tree species data from other sources, as a means of achieving high levels of accuracy”, says Solberg.

Great interest

Managing Director Erik Lahnstein at the Norwegian Forestry Owners Association views the development at Ås of the new planning technology with great interest. “If Forest Vision can contribute towards more cost-effective forestry planning, then we see this as a valuable addition to our toolbox”, he says.
Lahnstein sees immediate potential applications for the services provided by Forest Vision. “I’m thinking in particular in the wake of events such as storms involving extensive tree destruction. Fast access to radar data will enable us to get a quick overview of the situation. Ultimately, however, it all depends on price, availability and a cost-benefit assessment”, he says.
The Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre, with its diversity typification and description system Nature in Norway, is another organisation that may require better and even more rapidly updated data as a means of obtaining terrain overviews. “Large-scale data capture is a very exciting concept. We base our work on manual field mapping approaches carried out on foot using tablets, pen and paper”, says Senior Adviser Øyvind Bonesrønning at the Centre.
The Nature in Norway system is a globally unique tool developed by the Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre. The Centre developed the system from scratch and obtains data from all sources imaginable as a basis for mapping and describing terrain and habitat types.
“Whether or not we pay for it, frequently updated radar data can be a very important supplement to current methods of data capture here in Norway” says Bonesrønning. “Because of the massive interest for this universally applicable methodology, we’ve been travelling around Norway and the rest of the world explaining our approach. Forest Vision could become an interesting ingredient in the mix”, he says.

Rain forest management

Another application for which this technology may be of great benefit is the monitoring of tropical rain forests. Since 2007, Norway has provided NOK 17 billion of a total of NOK 33 billion in rain forest conservation subsidies. Together with the UK and Germany, Norway has undertaken to grant an additional USD 5 billion (about NOK 40 billion) in the years leading up to 2020. Norway’s share amounts to about NOK 3 billion annually.
Recipient countries don’t receive a penny of this money until they can demonstrate that they have implemented measures that have a real impact on deforestation. Observation is currently carried out using less effective technologies such as satellite-based optical monitoring. If such countries can demonstrate the impacts more accurately and reliably by using methods such as satellite radar, they will become entitled to more funds from the UN Climate Convention.
“This is a very interesting market for us”, says Solberg.

Mapping all of Uganda

Svein Solberg at NIBIO can also report that in 2015 Forest Vision was applied in a pilot study across an entire country – Uganda. Among other things, mapping demonstrated that the average height of forests had sunk by 33 centimetres in the period from 2000 to 2012. This equates to an annual volume of CO2 emissions of more than 27 million tonnes.

The Ugandan pilot study was carried out using radar data from the TanDEM-X satellites. By comparing these data with optical data from Landsat, researchers were able to show that the loss of biomass was almost impossible to detect using optical data alone.