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Ecologist wins Heinz environment prize for airborne mapping that informs policy

  • Ecologist Greg Asner of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory will receive a $250,000 award from the Heinz Family Foundation for his work to map rainforests and coral reefs around the world.
  • Lawmakers and other key decision-makers use Asner’s research to guide policy in the United States, South America and Southeast Asia.
  • Asner said he intends to put the funds toward marine education and outreach in Hawaii, where he began his career.

It’s not uncommon to find ecologist Greg Asner flying transects over the rainforests of the Amazon or Borneo. His specially outfitted plane has helped map out the three-dimensional structure of these ecosystems, and it’s earned him the esteem of his fellow scientists for the insights that this type of data lends to our understanding the health and functioning of tropical forests.

But these data also allow policymakers, government officials and conservationists to make decisions with a more complete picture of forests and the threats they face on an unprecedented scale.

“This is critical, because until now, the hardest part has been the ability to measure and map and discuss and bargain and make policy decisions over areas that are large enough to have real impact,” Asner said in a statement.

The CAO laser-guided imaging spectrometer data are fully three-dimensional, providing the structure and architecture of the forest, while simultaneously capturing up to 23 chemical properties of the canopy foliage. These colors indicate the diversity of canopy traits among coexisting tree species in the same hectare. Image and caption courtesy of Greg Asner, Carnegie Institution for Science

His work has caught the attention of the Heinz Family Foundation, who announced today that they will present him with a Heinz Award of $250,000 in October.

“By providing us with remarkable detail on the complexity and fragility of our world’s forests, Dr. Asner is pushing us to respond with greater urgency to the need to protect these resources for the health and future of us all,” said Teresa Heinz, Chairwoman of the Heinz Family Foundation in a statement from the organization.

From the beginning of his career, Asner has made it a priority to work with these decision-makers, who are often nonscientists.

“We are using science at new scales to affect change not only in the scientific realm and the thinking of scientists, but also to have efficacy in the realms of conservation policy and environmental management,” Asner added. “If we can do that, then we know that our science has had an impact.”

Asner leads the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) at the Carnegie Institution for Science, with his lab located at Stanford University.

“With the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, we have developed scientific approaches for getting really high-end detail that tells us specifically what is going on in a very large geographic area,” Asner said.

Carnegie Airborne Observatory-3 onboard laboratory includes navigation and data collection consoles, power and computing racks, and data capture facilities. Photo and caption courtesy of Greg Asner, Carnegie Institution for Science

His team uses a technique that Asner invented called “airborne laser-guided imaging spectroscopy,” that involved mounting imaging spectrometers on the CAO airplane, which allow them to measure the light reflected by the forest canopy. From the different wavelengths they measure, they can then tease apart unique signatures that open a window into the diversity of tree species in the forest. Asner hopes that one day soon, they’ll be able to mount their system on a satellite and produce monthly biodiversity maps covering the entire planet.

Information from the CAO aircraft can also be used “to train” or “to make the Landsat data much more sensitive to the details” of what threats such as gold mining look like on the imagery to help agencies learn about the most pressing threats to forests in real time, Asner said. He and his team have developed a software package called CLASlite that allows scientists from all over the world — currently about 5,000 in 137 countries to whom they’ve provided the package for free — to monitor deforestation and forest degradation.

In Peru, Asner’s team works directly with the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, and his team’s surveys are helping authorities identify sections of the Amazon that house the highest levels of biodiversity so they can protect them. Another recent study demonstrated that keeping gold miners from destroying protected forests will require sustained — not just periodic — enforcement by government authorities.

An orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Asner’s surveys of the Bornean state of Sabah now provide Malaysian officials with data on the biodiversity, habitat and carbon stock present in the state’s forests. His collaboration with scientists on the ground there is also helping them better understand which forests support populations of the Critically Endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus).

He and his team have also made an impact closer to their home base.

“In California, traditionally you have had field work and satellites to collect data, but both are mismatches in scale with the actual problem of managing California’s watersheds,” Asner said.

“With the new methods and new instrumentation that we’ve developed, we can measure the impact of the recent drought, tree by tree, watershed by watershed, in utter detail, so that decisions can have real world applicability, from the single landowner who has a one-acre parcel all the way up to state and federal forest reserves.”

Asner’s research helped inform Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to declare a state of emergency to deal with the multi-year drought that California has faced.

“Through the technology and scientific applications, [Asner] has developed, he is not only revolutionizing the way we understand the living world around us, he is equipping us with information that can be shared and directly used to inform policy change — at a time when that has never been more important,” Teresa Heinz said.

Ecologist Greg Asner’s ultra-high-resolution maps of rainforests and coral reefs are informing environmental policy around the world. Photo by Spencer Lowell courtesy of the Heinz Family Foundation

The $250,000 award comes with no stipulations on how it should be spent, so Asner aims to invest it back into a place where science is informing conservation.

“I’m going to put it toward marine education and outreach, mostly in Hawaii,” he told Mongabay. “Hawaii is where I started more than 25 years ago.”

The state is another location where policymakers have taken notice of Asner’s work. CAO surveys have revealed that the islands’ coral reefs are dying off, and state agencies are now using that information to do what they can to slow or even reverse this worrying trend, in another example of basic science lending understanding to how we can best protect our environment.

“This Heinz award is especially humbling, not just because so few receive it, but because it means that folks notice the impact my team and I have had on the applied side, which for us is ecosystem conservation and management, as well as the training of a wide range of professionals,” Asner said. “It inspires me to do more.”

Banner image of Spencer Lowell courtesy of the Heinz Family Foundation.

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Asner, G. P., Martin, R. E., Knapp, D. E., Tupayachi, R., Anderson, C. B., Sinca, F., … & Llactayo, W. (2017). Airborne laser-guided imaging spectroscopy to map forest trait diversity and guide conservation. Science, 355(6323), 385-389.

Asner, G. P., & Tupayachi, R. (2016). Environmental Research Letters, 12, 094004.

Davies, A. B., Ancrenaz, M., Oram, F., & Asner, G. P. (2017). Canopy structure drives orangutan habitat selection in disturbed Bornean forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(31), 8307-8312.

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