SERVIR-Himalaya Small Grant Programme

Using Spaceborne Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) in Synergy with Other Methods for Forest Above-Ground Biomass Assessment in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) Region

The Institute of Space Technology (IST), Islamabad, is one of the eight grantees from South Asia and the only one from Pakistan to be awarded a project under the SERVIR-Himalaya Small Grants Programme launched by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Nepal. The SERVIR-Himalaya Small Grants Programme is funded by the Unites States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Twenty-eight concept papers were shortlisted from the initial pool of 191 submissions. Shortlisted candidates were asked to expand their papers into full proposals, and after a careful evaluation, eight proposals were awarded funding. The IST project aims to study and develop methods for forest aboveground biomass (AGB) measurement using remote sensing methods in Pakistan and the surrounding region.

This project is funded by SERVIR, a regional visualization and monitoring system that integrates earth observations such as satellite imagery and forecast models, with in situ data and other information for timely decision making. SERVIR is a joint initiative of USAID and NASA. SERVIR-Himalaya is implemented in partnership with ICIMOD and works towards establishing itself as a regional resource centre in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region by developing relevant geospatial applications, and increasing access to data and decision-support tools on different thematic areas.

Global warming is one of the most pressing issues today. A major source of increase in temperature is deforestation. Carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, is absorbed by forests that cover around 31% of the global land area. It is essential to estimate the amount of carbon stored in each tree of a forest to assess climate change. The United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) initiative offers incentives to developing countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and adapt low-carbon paths to sustainable development. Pakistan has recently joined the REDD initiative. 

Carbon stored in trees can be estimated by actually going into the forest and taking sample plots of trees. This requires intensive labour and a large amount of time and resources. On the other hand, methods are being developed to measure the carbon content of trees through satellite images. These remote-sensing methods are less labor-intensive and more cost-effective, but they require an expert technical hand for data interpretation and analysis. Most of the tree AGB is contained in the woody part, whereas optical satellite images are restricted by their inability to penetrate the forest canopy cover. Spaceborne SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) signals can penetrate the canopy and get signal return from the tree stem and branches. SAR images can thus be very useful for deriving better estimates of forest AGB in synergy with other measurements.

The objective of this project is to develop methods to estimate the carbon stored in forest AGB using space-based SAR imagery in synergy with other remote sensing and ground-based methods. The outcomes of this project will be important for remote sensing professionals, researchers, Earth scientists, and academics, as well as for forestry officials and policy makers in Pakistan and the region.