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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  News & Events  /  News  /  News Archive  /  2014  /  November 2014  /  Forests near and far

Forests near and far

Mat Disney and Andy Burt in Oxfordshire and remotest Brazil

Forests near and far

Dr Mat Disney and colleagues have been using new lidar equipment to measure forests in both the UK and abroad. Funding for the equipment was won from NERC earlier this year in part via the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO).

Mat's work will be featured in a BBC documentary next autumn, presenting a year in the life of an oak tree. This September, Mat and Andy Burt, his PhD student, scanned the tree in Wytham Woods, just outside Oxford, with the film crew watching on. Mat has since been back to share the results, showing the structure of the tree and how the lidar allows us to estimate its mass and volume very accurately.

More recently Mat and Andy flew off to Caxiuana, in a remote part of the Brazilian Amazon, 12 hours by boat from the nearest small town, to scan the forest. The purpose was part of a fascinating ongoing experiment to look at the effects of drought on the forest.

Researchers from various UK universities, with the Museo Goeldi in Brevez, Para State, have set up a controlled experiment to exclude rainfall from 1 hectare of forest, to measure the effects on the physiology (photosynthesis, carbon and water exchange) and mortality of the trees ( With an adjacent control plot, this has been monitored for over a decade. This unique experiment is providing insight into the likely effects of the more frequent and severe droughts predicted for the coming decades.

The lidar provides a view of the forest that has never been captured in such detail before. In two weeks, Mat and Andy scanned over 1000 trees, collecting nearly a terabyte of data, comprising over a billion lidar points. With Dr Lucy Rowland, Dr Ed Mitchard, and Prof Patrick Meir (University of Edinburgh) they will use the lidar data to help answer important questions about differences in the biomass of the trees, their number, height and shape. They will also measure changes in the upper parts of the canopy that result from large trees dying and being replaced by smaller, more drought-tolerant species. These measurements are almost impossible to make any other way. Mat has updated his blog to show some of the early results (See:

A research paper related to this Amazon work was published on 21 November in the journal, Methods in Ecology and Evolution, demonstrating the technique in Australian forests.



Sunset on the Amazon

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