Flying laboratory reveals crucial tropical forest conservation targets in Borneo

About 40 percent of northern Malaysian Borneo’s carbon stocks exist  in forests that are not designated for maximum protections, according to  new remote sensing and satellite mapping from Carnegie’s Greg Asner and his colleagues.

Asner’s  flying laboratory, the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, was able to map  carbon stocks that—together with satellite imaging and other geospatial  data—will guide conservation efforts undertaken by the Sabah Forestry  Department in Malaysian Borneo, the Southeast Asia Rainforest Research  Partnership (SEARRP), the PACOS Trust, BC Initiative and other  organizations.

“We are proud to be part of this groundbreaking  endeavor in the state of Sabah, which sets us apart in accelerating the  quest and capacity to protect, restore, and conserve more  high-conservation and high-carbon forests in this country,” said Sam  Mannan, Chief Conservator of Forests. “We shall apply the information  gathered for the common good of society, particularly, in mitigating  against the worst effects of climate change. This project is of immense  value to tropical forest management.”

Why is measuring carbon stocks so important?

Because tropical  forests like those in the Sabah have converted large quantities  atmospheric carbon into organic material—and they accomplish more of  this than any other terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.  But when this  forest land is repurposed for agriculture, logging, or mining, carbon is  released into the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change.  Tropical deforestation and forest degradation account for about a tenth  of the world’s carbon emissions each year.

So, figuring out which  segments of Sabah’s forests contain the most carbon in the form of  biomass is an important first step in helping the government of the  Sabah meet its goal of increasing protected forests from 1.8 to 2.2  million hectares.

“The nearly 4 million hectares of Sabah’s  forests are a kaleidoscope of many different habitats and management  histories, which required a wall-to-wall mapping effort to truly  quantify the amount of carbon they contain,” Asner explained.

Using  the Carnegie Airborne Observatory’s signature technique, called  airborne laser-guided imaging spectroscopy, integrated with satellite  imaging, and other geospatial data, Asner and his team were able to  provide high-resolution maps of Sabah’s forests. In addition to finding  50 trees of the tallest tropical trees ever measured, the CAO team  pinpointed important targets for conservation efforts.

They found  that about 40 percent of the state’s carbon is contained in forests  that are not protected at the highest designation. What’s more, they  discovered that Sabah could double carbon stocks by allowing previously  logged forests to regenerate—a process that they estimate would take  about a century.

SEARRP’s Glen Reynolds said: “it’s a rare  opportunity to work with state-wide datasets of this quality. By  integrating the CAO maps with ground-based biodiversity data and  information on the use of forests by local people, we should be uniquely  well placed to identify hundreds of thousands of new conservation areas  in Sabah that not only protect key habitats, but also the livelihoods  of forest-dependent communities”.

“Forest carbon is an important  factor in locating places where conservation efforts could make the  greatest impact,” Asner added. “But other data on canopy biodiversity  and animal habitats, such as our work on Bornean orangutans, will also help inform decisionmakers.”  

Maps show the density of aboveground carbon stocks in the Sabah state of Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Mapping forest carbon is an important step in identifying areas for conservation, but is tremendously difficult to accomplish without airborne and satellite technology.

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