Biomass: Seeing the wood for the trees

With ESA’s Biomass mission, Airbus is helping to answer a big question about the Earth’s forests that will help protect the future of our planet. Forests absorb and release huge amounts of carbon – but we don’t know exactly how much. The biomass of Earth’s forests is poorly and inconsistently quantified and to tackle the climate crisis, we need better understanding of how the carbon cycle is changing due to human activity.

The challenge seems immense. How do you measure the biomass of every trunk and branch of every tree, in every forest, across the globe?

Decades of research
Airbus is prime contractor for the Biomass mission, designing and building a satellite that, when it launches in 2022, will carry the first ever space-borne P-band synthetic aperture radar. This unique, innovative tool is the result of decades of research and with it, we’ll be able to measure the 3D structure of forests from orbit. The measurement will let us estimate how much biomass they contain, and how much carbon is sequestered in every forest around the world.

Snapshots of forests
During its initial five-year mission, Biomass will create exceptionally accurate snapshots of tropical, temperate and boreal forests. Over time, we’ll be able to look at changes between these snapshots: measuring gains and losses in biomass and gauging the effect of deforestation on climate. This information is crucial to understanding climate change. The hope is that it will lead to a universal standard for biomass change that governments and international bodies can use as a clear, accurate benchmark.

Nobody has measured the Earth with P-band radar before and it is likely that Biomass will help us learn many new things about our planet. From a better understanding of the ice and snow in our cryosphere, to new knowledge about how our deserts evolved, to helping archaeologists discover the foundations of ancient cities deep in inaccessible jungle.