Researchers propose satellite mission to improve understanding of global vegetation change

Researchers from a NASA-sponsored working group on satellite monitoring of global terrestrial biodiversity, including University of Minnesota associate professor Jeannine Cavender-Bares, have called for a satellite mission to track global changes in plant functional diversity.

The mission, proposed in an article published last week in the scientific journal Nature Plants, would improve predictions of future change and fill critical gaps in our knowledge of the pace and consequences of global change, according to the authors. It would extend — literally to another level — research Cavender-Bares, an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, has underway to improve our ability to monitor vegetation changes on Earth using aircraft-based remote sensing.

“In an era of rapid global change, ground-based methods cannot track the changes in functional biodiversity as fast as they happen,” Cavender-Bares said. “We are at a moment when technological advances have allowed for detection of critical functions and functional diversity of plants around the global on a continuous basis. Maintaining Earth’s life-support systems and managing the ecosystem services that contribute to human well-being requires this level of detailed planetary monitoring of the biota.”

The proposed research “would capture information of ecological relevance at unprecedented scale and detail,” said lead author Walter Jetz of Yale University. “It would allow us to characterize and monitor key biodiversity attributes and processes in a globally contiguous way. This has the potential to transform our ability to understand and predict global biodiversity patterns in space and time.”

The technology that would be used, imaging spectroscopy, is an established approach to monitoring terrestrial plant functional biodiversity in a way that is vastly richer and more sensitive than other remote sensing techniques. It would be able to provide global coverage in enough detail to provide researchers with critical information about biodiversity they could combine with local measurements to paint a clearer picture of how Earth’s vegetation is changing and the implications for the well-being of ecosystems and the people who depend on them for food, freshwater and clean air. The information it would yield, the authors suggested, would “revolutionize large-scale research on the stability and resilience of ecosystems to shocks such as drought, fire, and pathogen outbreaks.”

“The global biodiversity observatory will allow us to detect where composition and diversity in plants are changing most rapidly and where management efforts and policy decisions will be most effective,” Cavender-Bares said. 

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