Laser beam homes in on carbon stocks in Peru

Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) is used calculate the amount of above ground biomass and the carbon stock in Peru's palm swamps.
LiDAR will provide a highly detailed picture of the palm swamp’s vegetation.

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Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series about CIFOR research in Peru’s palm swamps. Read Part 1 here.

José González de Tanago steadies a tripod on the shifting, swampy soil near Lake Quistococha and attaches a metal box with what looks like a huge bug eye on top.

Although the apparatus is reminiscent of Star Wars’ R2D2, the eye is actually a camera lens — and the box contains a laser beam.

The system, known as “light detection and ranging,” or LiDAR, will provide a highly detailed picture of the palm swamp’s vegetation, says González de Tanago, a doctoral student fellow at the University of Wageningen who is working with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

As it rotates on the tripod, it scans the vegetation, recording data that a computer will later use to create a three-dimensional image of the forest. That enables González de Tanago to calculate the amount of aboveground biomass — and the carbon it stores — more accurately, as it takes into account branches and variations in the diameter of individual tree trunks.

His work is part of the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP), a collaboration between CIFOR and the U.S. Forest Service.

LiDAR systems have generally been mounted in airplanes to map biomass based on the height of tree canopies. The ground-based system González de Tanago is using is fairly new, and it has advantages and disadvantages, he says.

“Terrestrial LiDAR provides a high level of detail about the forest structure in a small area, while airborne LiDAR can cover larger areas of hundreds or thousands of square kilometers,” he said.

The ground-based measurement is more accurate because it provides both vertical and horizontal measurements, while the airborne system’s calculations are based on an average of canopy height across an area.

“But it’s prohibitive to cover really large areas with terrestrial LiDAR, because we have to sample in great detail, and that would take a long time,” he said.

Because the terrestrial system is so new, González de Tanago and his colleagues must develop the software they need to process their data. His goal is to correlate the ground-based data with satellite images, so countries can eventually track carbon stocks and emissions remotely, using satellite images that are available for free.

That is important for countries like Peru as they develop systems to monitor programs to reduce deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).

“This research falls within the framework of REDD+ monitoring and verification systems,” González de Tanago. “We need to develop better and more accurate methods to measure carbon stocks over time.”

For more information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Kristell Hergoualc’h at

CIFOR’s research on forests and nutrition is part of the CGIAR Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. The SWAMP project is supported by funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands REDD+ Peatlands Wetlands