Health & Environment

Scientist Visualizes A Changing Ecosystem

April 2, 2018

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
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Investigating the biggest questions of our time takes rigor, drive, and sometimes lasers. One Texas A&M scientist is joining a team of global researchers to help NASA leverage laser-imaging technology to unlock the answers that will reshape our world.

Set to launch on Sept. 12, 2018, NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, mission will create 3-D maps of our world’s ecosystems to better understand the effects of climate change around the world. Four years ago, Dr. Sorin Popescu, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research ecosystem science and management scientist, was handpicked by NASA to join the mission. One of two vegetation scientists on the project, Dr. Popescu is working alongside Dr. Amy Neuenschwander from the University of Texas to enhance the accuracy of large-scale vegetation measurements. Together they will work to better understand how plants respond to shifting climates.

A SfM (structure from motion)-generated point cloud image. (Texas A&M AgriLife)
A SfM (structure from motion)-generated point cloud image. (Texas A&M AgriLife)

Using photon counting Light Detection and Ranging (LiDar) data, the mission will map and monitor biomass and carbon levels of earth’s ecosystems over large areas of land. This photon laser technology can be used to obtain direct 3-D structure measurements and visualizations of vegetation around the world. Currently, the best means of recording this data is via aircraft equipped with LiDar technology, but that method of data collection has proven to be costly and inaccurate. The satellite will measure global changes in ice sheets as well as terrestrial elevation and vegetation, and the researchers hope to use the data to mitigate the human impact of global warming.

Additionally, Dr. Popescu has been working with NASA to make sure the mission is successful by ensuring the data is usable and freely available to scientists around the world. Because the ICESat-2 mission will capture information at a variety of scales, the data that it collects would ideally be implemented on a number of different projects by any scientist who can make use of it.

Progress is only possible when we confront the unknown. Whether we’re aiding NASA to discover the effects of a changing climate, rethinking our approach to degenerative diseases, or working to ensure access to clean water around the world, Texas A&M is fearless on every front.

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