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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  News & Events  /  News  /  News Archive  /  2015  /  November 2015  /  It never rains but it pours

It never rains but it pours

Mat and Andy in French Guiana

It never rains but it pours

Dr. Mat Disney and PhD student Andy Burt spent two weeks in mid-November in part of the Amazonian jungle of French Guiana, scanning the dense rainforest with Mat’s terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) instrument.

They were based at the French CNRS ( field station at Nouragues (, a 30 minute helicopter ride from Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. The trip was funded by CNRS with additional support from the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) (, of which the UCL Geography Earth Observation group is a part.

Mat and Andy were in the forest to measure the structure of the canopy very accurately, with the TLS collecting information on the sizes of trees, branches and leaves to within a few millimetres. They are using the data to estimate the mass of the trees, and thus how much carbon is stored in the forests. This is likely to change in future as temperature and rainfall change, but past forecasts of how quickly, and even in which direction, such changes may take  place have been uncertain because of the difficulty of estimating tree mass.

Direct measurement is extremely hard, since it requires cutting down and weighing often very tall trees - Mat and Andy, with a French colleague from Toulouse, Blaise Tymon, measured some trees in the plot that were over 60 m high. The work was made more difficult as the wet season appeared to come early, and torrential rain showers had to be dodged almost every day. Despite this, the team were able to collect nearly 4bn data points from a 1ha forest plot, the most detailed 3D scan of a forest ever made in this way.

The results will be used to make better estimates of forest structure and mass in the tropics, and to understand forest growth and function better. The data will also be used to calibrate and validate new satellite estimates of tropical forests, through Mat and Professor Philip Lewis’s collaborations with the European Space Agency BIOMASS ( and NASA GEDI ( teams.


Blaise (left) and Andy viewing the rainforest