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September 2019

Race against time

by Leithen Francis

Borneo’s rainforests are rich in biodiversity and home to many endangered animals, such as orangutans, Asian two-horned rhinoceros and clouded leopards. Deforestation, driven by the timber industry, mining and the development of palm oil plantations, appears to be destroying these animals’ habitats and possibly destroying our home – planet Earth – as well.

The rainforests of Borneo play an extremely important role in the global battle against climate change. They are responsible for converting mass quantities of atmospheric carbon into organic material and they do it more effectively than any other ecosystem on Earth’s surface. According to Earthtimes.org, the term ecosystem simply describes the living and inanimate components of a geograph­ically-defined environment as a single system, whereas biomes are geographical areas with similar ecosystems. The Boreal forests, also called taiga, are the largest biome on land, and every time its rainforests are cut down, vast quantities of carbon are released into the atmosphere, fueling climate change.

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Greg Asner in the rainforest on the upper slope of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. (Photo: ASU / Greg Asner)

Borneo – a beautiful paradise

Borneo is viewed by many travelers as an island paradise in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago. The island is shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah, Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the tiny nation of Brunei. It has become famous for its beaches and ancient, bio­diverse rainforest. Sabah is located in the northern part of the island. The people there – like many others around the globe – are committed to increasing Borneo’s protected forest area. Currently the protected area is only 26 percent of the state’s landmass, and the state government wants to increase this to 30 percent. Sabah’s forestry department and several community-based organizations invited an American scientist and his team to come to Sabah, as part of the efforts to save the forest.

A global airborne observatory

Greg Asner, the director of the Center for Global Discovering and Conservation Science at Arizona State University, says tropical deforestation and forest degradation account for a significant proportion of the world’s carbon emissions each year. He accepted the project with enthusiasm, as undertaking the project in Sabah was a once in a lifetime experience and fell within his organization’s scope of work, which ­essentially focuses on applied research that can help create a more sustainable ecological future.

The center uses airborne mapping techniques to reveal the functional diversity of ecosystems and thus identify the best areas for conservation. Known as the Global Airborne Observatory, their airborne platform uses a Dornier 228 equipped with sensors to measure the carbon stocks in the forests below. Forest carbon stock refers to the amount of carbon that has been sequestered from the atmosphere and is now stored within the forest ecosystem. The team discovered that around 40 percent of Sabah’s carbon stocks are in zones outside of areas designated for maximum conservation and protection – and thus outside the protected zones. This is significant, because Sabah’s government now has the data needed to determine which areas of the forest contain the most carbon, in the form of biomass (organic material that comes from plants and animals), and therefore which areas of the forest are most important to conserve, so as to mitigate carbon emissions. The United Kingdom’s National Meteorological Service – the Met Office – has forecast that the level of climate-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will rise by a near-record amount in 2019, and much of this rise is fueled by the continued burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests.

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3D structure of oil palm fields and forests in Borneo. (Photo: ASU / Greg Asner)

Measuring carbon stocks and finding the world’s tallest tropical tree

The Global Airborne Observatory can measure the carbon stocks in the forests using light detection and ranging (LIDAR) – an aerial surveying technology that measures the distance to a target by illuminating the target with a pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor. The differences in the laser return times and wavelengths are then used to make accurate digital representations of the forest in 3D. Greg says data collected can lead to some amazing, unexpected discoveries. In Sabah, they found the world’s tallest tropical tree – a 100 meter high Shorea. “The tree was located in Sabah’s Danum Valley using the surveying equipment on board the Dornier 228 Global Airborne Observatory,” says Greg, who later ventured into the forest to see the tree first-hand. “Discovering this huge tropical tree is one of the most emotionally moving experiences of my career”, says Greg, adding that “it is a neat discovery that inspires people.”

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Researchers estimate that the number of orangutans left on Borneo now stands at between 70,000 and 100,000, meaning the population has more than
halved over the last 16 years. (Photo: iStock)

Hollywood support

When LoveDornier 228 spoke to Greg, he was about to make a return trip to Sabah to meet with British actress Judi Dench, who is filming a two-part TV special called Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventures. “The one-hour TV special includes a segment talking about how we discovered these huge Shorea trees using the Dornier 228,” says Greg. His work to help protect and save the environment has also inspired some other very famous names. Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovering and Conservation Science is a non-profit organization that relies on fundraising. “I spend a lot of time with donors. I have had a critical group of donors that have been working with me over the years,” says Greg, who mentions in passing that Hollywood producer James Cameron – maker of the film Avatar – and Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio are two of his donors.

The team

The center’s Global Airborne Observatory needs substantial funding, as the team includes full-time personnel, such as two pilots, two aircraft engineers, two aircraft technicians, two instrument technicians and 15 data scientists. If we add in Greg and other support staff, the team comes to 30. Greg says he chose the Dornier 228 as the platform for the Global Airborne Observatory because the aircraft has more payload and endurance ability than other aircraft in the same size category. Greg also reveals that he needs the additional payload space because “the imaging systems we use are not getting any smaller, and they are getting more capable. These systems are really high resolution. The team needs this capability for our research process to work efficiently and effectively.”

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Inside Asner’s airborne observatory. (Photo: Spencer Lowell)

The aircraft

The Dornier 228 is unpressurized, making it easier to modify for sensor equipment. The skin at the bottom of the fuselage has been removed in three areas between the stringers, so that the sensors can poke through. “The instruments are super sensitive, so we can’t have any glass covering them,” says Greg, adding that the instruments include spectrometers, a type of high-resolution camera. He says the demand for the Global Airborne Observatory’s services “are much higher than what we can provide.” There are many more discoveries to be made.

The Global Airborne Observatory is collecting and ana­lyzing valuable data for governments and non-profit organizations to use in natural resource management – such as managing forests, agriculture, fisheries and coral reefs. “I feel strongly that for environmental applications, other non-profit and non-governmental organizations need to be doing more of this type of work. My team is still basically the only one doing it. I am not talking about doing it once a year but doing it all year round. There are very few non-profit organizations working in this space. I don’t mind the competition. I have more work than I can take on,” Greg concludes.

Mapping of a Bornean rainforest to reveal biodiversity and carbon storage.


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Greg Asner’s airborne observatory, the Dornier 228. (Photo: Spencer Lowell)

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