Photo courtesy of Carla Thomas, NASA.

Photo courtesy of Carla Thomas, NASA

Written by Laura Duncanson, Assistant Research Professor, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

People are often surprised to learn that I’m a NASA scientist who studies trees. Many don’t realize that in addition to searching the universe, much of NASA’s research focuses on the only known planet to host life – our own. I study Earth’s forests with satellite data, and we are about to enter a particularly exciting decade for Forest research. In November of this year, NASA is launching a mission (The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, GEDI) to shoot lasers at Earth’s surface from the International Space Station (ISS). GEDI (pronounced JEDI, à la Star Wars), has a primary mission science goal to produce a detailed 3D map of the carbon content stored in Earth’s forests. Before now we have mostly examined forests in 2D, but satellite imagery doesn’t show us how tall trees are or how much carbon they store.

International Space Station photo courtesy of NASA

International Space Station photo courtesy of NASA

How do trees relate to climate change? If you were to cut down a tree in the forest, and dry it out, about 50% of what’s left over is carbon. If you burn that wood, the carbon gets released back to the atmosphere, adding to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations which we know contribute to climate change. When you plant new trees, on the other hand, carbon is sucked out of the atmosphere, storing it in the plants as wood, roots and leaves. We know that limiting deforestation and planting new trees can help solve the global climate crisis – but before now we haven’t had the data to actually assign carbon change numbers over large areas.

How does this apply to cocoa production? When a forest is cleared to make way for cocoa we do not know how much carbon is lost to the atmosphere from this conversion unless we know how much carbon was stored in the trees. The same goes for any deforestation or degradation activity where people convert forests to agricultural land, including coffee, pastures, palm oil, etc. Without 3D data, we’ve been largely in the dark when it comes to understanding the impacts of these activities on our climate.

That’s where NASA comes in – with our new 3D maps we will be able to make detailed estimates of how much carbon is stored in forests all over the world. And by combining these 3D maps with 2D NASA satellite imagery collected through time, we’ll be able to track forest loss and gain, and understand how these shifts relate to climate change. All of this will allow a big step forward in our understanding of how to manage our forests better, and decrease the environmental impact of cocoa production.

How can NASA enable more sustainable cocoa production? NASA makes all of its data completely free to the public, including all of these new 3D laser datasets and associated forest carbon maps. We’re also developing tools to track deforestation through time, and provide alerts when we see forest loss from space. Together, we will be able to track illegal deforestation in preserved areas, monitor positive activities like tree planting, and encourage cocoa producers to have the smallest environmental footprint possible. For other NASA Earth Science research and initiatives visit