Using laser technology aboard the International Space Station, Lola Fatoyinbo can get a 3D measure of forest carbon—making it the first near-global dataset.
Meet the NASA Scientist Who Uses Lasers to Study Forests
Published: January 26, 2021
Lola Fatoyinbo: Just thinking that I get to go into the forest and shoot lasers at trees is mind blowing. I grew up in Benin in West Africa. My parents worked for an international organization, so I moved around a lot. And there were many times where I would be driving down the street and there would be lots of big trees. And come back, you know, a few weeks, or months, or years later, and a lot of those big trees were no longer there. And that would really break my heart. Growing up, it was just always really clear to me that there is direct connection between human wellbeing and the quality of the environment around you.
Narrator: Lola Fatoyinbo is now a research scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. She and her team are about to see the century-old tree she loves in a new light.
Fatoyinbo: When I'm going on a hike through a forest, I have a tendency to look up and say, okay, oh, that tree is about 60 feet tall. And then I try to calculate in my head, okay, how much carbon is stored in that tree? There's carbon all around us. Generally speaking, when we're looking at trees, about half of that weight is carbon.
Narrator: Lola and her team want to know how much carbon is stored in this entire forest. To measure each and every tree, they're using a special kind of tool, lasers.
Fatoyinbo: We're using a terrestrial laser scanner that shoots out billions of laser pulses every second and then measures the distance from the instrument to whatever is around it. The data that we get back, we call it a point cloud.
Narrator: Billions of data points form a 3D measurement of forest volume and the carbon stored within.
Fatoyinbo: It's such a dense point cloud that it actually looks like an image, you know, almost like science fiction.
Narrator: This scan may look like reality, but it's data revealing that in the area the size of a football field, these trees are storing roughly 150 metric tons of carbon, all pulled out of thin air. But to get a global view of how much carbon forests are storing, Lola needs to look from space. Enter the International Space Station.
This is about the size of a fridge.
Narrator: With the same laser technology used by your terrestrial scanners, Lola can get a 3D measure of forest carbon.
Fatoyinbo: You can see the laser shooting down out of the bottom of the instrument towards the surface of the planet. We actually can see a full profile of plant materials. The game changer here is that this is going to be, for the first time, a near global dataset. So, the fact that it's on the International Space Station means that it is collecting data everywhere where the Space Station is flying. And that means that we're getting data almost everywhere on Earth.
Narrator: This research will give insight on the carbon new forests could store as well as locate old forests that are holding lots of carbon that Lola believes we must preserve, and not just because these store carbon.
Fatoyinbo: There are so many things about forests that are amazing. Forests are really important for our water supply. Forests protect us from heat. Forests breathe, in some ways, just like we do. When you lose a lot of the ecosystem services that forest provide, that has a direct impact on the wellbeing of people. One of my hopes in the type of work that I do is that my work will not only have a scientific contribution but will also have a societal impact.
Producer/Director: Ben Kalina
Director/Camera: Jen Schneider
Edited by: Rob Tinworth and Arlo Perez
Digital Producer: Arlo Perez
Animation: Mitch Butler Media, LLC
Archival Footage: NASA
Special thanks to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2021