Climate change

The University of Adelaide is working on the development of a radar imaging system that could assist researchers in better understanding climate change.

To overcome the uncertainties of the carbon cycle and its impact on long-term climatic trends, staff at the University of Adelaide’s Centre of Expertise in Microwave Radar (CoEMR) are developing a new type of radar sensor to provide global 3-D maps of vegetation structure, which can help reduce these uncertainties and ultimately improve our predictions of climate change.

Shane Cloude, Professor of Microwave Radar, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide, said changes in vegetation structure, induced by climatic conditions, natural disturbance and human activities, can have a substantial impact on carbon storage and the exchange of greenhouse gases such as CO2 with the atmosphere.

“Fossil fuel burning and deforestation, which release CO2, are believed to be the two dominant contributions to the rise of atmospheric carbon over the past 50 years,” Professor Cloude said.

Trees store carbon in their biomass and so forests have the potential to act as carbon sinks, to re-absorb some of the excess CO2. Given the importance of forests in both scientific and political terms, there remain surprisingly large uncertainties in our global knowledge of vegetation biomass.

“In addition, the dynamic processes of carbon flux due to changes in vegetation and its interaction with the wider carbon cycle call for a better quantitative understanding of the spatiotemporal variations in biomass,” he added.

With the erosion of large scale land based observation networks, interest is turning to remote sensing technologies to make a big impact in this area and establish reference global maps of biomass for input to climate change models.

“One key technology is microwave radar imaging from space satellites. It was realised more than 20 years ago that microwaves have the advantage over optical sensors of being able to penetrate dense forests and provide a signal related to the total biomass of the vegetation. However, radar brightness alone is insufficient to provide the kind of accuracies required.

“Therefore, at the CoEMR, we are developing a new approach that relies on measurement of forest height by using a radar technique called polarimetric interferometry or POLInSAR which is both well suited to satellite technology and can provide the kind of accuracies required for global mapping.

“This method employs two passes of the satellite in orbit over the same scene and by very accurate measurement of the phase or time shift between the two signals in different polarisations, provides an estimate of the mean vegetation height,” Professor Cloude said.

“Height is then used to estimate biomass via growth models or allometric relations.”

Initial experiments with this mode of the satellite will take place in 2005/06 using the new Japanese ALOS satellite with a possible global mapping mission to follow by the end of the decade.

The University of Adelaide will establish a POLInSAR calibration site in South Australia and work with data from a well-characterised forest test site near Injune in Queensland to validate the technology.