Highlighting the Importance of Trees Outside of Forests

Dr. David Skole of the Department of Forestry at Michigan State University, operating out of the Global Observatory for Ecosystem Services, is working with a team to implement new monitoring tools.

Trees outside of forests in central Malawi.
Trees outside of forests in central Malawi. Photo credit: D.L. Skole.

These new monitoring tools aim to highlight the importance and potential impact of carbon in trees outside of forests.

“Following the most recent international climate summit in Glasgow Scotland earlier this month, forests are more prominent than ever in the eyes of the policy community. They are referring to policy actions that focus on forests as natural climate solutions. But the worldwide dialog on forests needs to be greatly expanded to include a range of landscapes with trees outside of forests as well,” said Skole. 

Trees outside of forests systems are pervasive in developing countries and provide numerous natural products, water retention, food security, livestock fodder, and many other important components that impact the livelihood of those who manage the areas. These areas allow for a diverse range of products outside of annual crops, which is a much higher economic value than annual crops alone.

With the overall impact of trees outside of forests systems in the tropics and how they influence the global carbon budget previously uncertain, new measurement and monitoring tools using high resolution satellite Earth data, estimates of these systems’ biomass and carbon change on a large scale are now more attainable. This new framework for climate change mitigation would also directly benefit adaptation. 

The new measurement and monitoring tools use remote sensing that ranges from medium to very high resolution, as fine-scale as 0.5 meters, allowing researchers to see, map and measure each individual tree.

Artificial intelligence models tree features including their shapes, shadow lengths and orientations, then generates a map that covers millions of kilometers. One study by Martin Brandt, University of Copenhagen, showed unexpectedly high numbers of trees populating an area once thought to be pure desert. 

“As the adage goes, now that we can measure it, we can manage it,” said Skole.

In addition to Dr. Skole, partners in this study include Cheikh Mbow, of the Future Africa Institute, University of Pretoria, South Africa, and adjunct professor in the MSU Department of Forestry, Maurice Mugabowindekwe and Martin S. Brandt of the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources Management, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Jay H. Samek of the Global Observatory for Ecosystem Services, Department of Forestry, Michigan State University.

A more in-depth paper on this research is available in Nature Climate Change, published Nov 25, 2021.

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