U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

PI-Submitted Research Highlights for
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program

International Space Station Observations Offer Insights Into Plant Function

Shawn Serbin
Brookhaven National Laboratory


22 06 2017

New instrumentation will be installed on the International Space Station that will provide a unique opportunity to gain important insights into poorly understood ecosystems

The Science
Ecosystems, particularly tropical forests, play an important role in determining the rate and extent of changes in the Earth system by absorbing and storing about one-third of the carbon dioxide released when we use oil, coal and other fossil fuels. Our current understanding of how ecosystems take up and store carbon dioxide is limited to those areas that can be reached by the scientists that study them. However, these study sites only represent a small fraction of the total land area that we need to study in order to understand how much and for how long plants will continue to help slow the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. New instrumentation and technology offers the opportunity to remotely measure many important properties of plants and ecosystems that will determine how the planet will respond to changing environments and provide critical data for scientists to test models of how ecosystems will respond to changes in the Earth system. Specifically, remote measurement of tree height, temperature, carbon dioxide take up and biochemical composition offers exciting new opportunities for science. This work highlights the deployment of this new instrumentation on the international space station (ISS), informs the scientific community of the opportunity presented by these measurements and describes ways to use this unique data. The work is the result of detailed discussions and an ongoing collaboration between ecosystem modelers, experimentalists, and remote sensing scientists.

The Impact
This paper provides a clear vision on the ways in which the experimental, modeling, and remote sensing communities can use simultaneous observations of ecosystem structure, function, composition, and biochemistry from a suite of novel sensors that will be installed on the International Space Station (ISS). Importantly, the collection of these remotely sensed data will improve our understanding of ecosystems as well as our ability to test predictive models.

In order to improve prediction of the ability of plants to slow the rate of Earth and environmental change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide our science desperately needs more data about the composition, function, and structure of terrestrial ecosystems, particularly in remote regions such as the tropics. Unfortunately, our current ability to measure and understand important ecosystem processes is too sparse, and too spatially biased to make significant progress. Satellite observations are the only source for the dense, frequent, spatially and temporally extensive records required. The unique collection of new measurements anticipated from the ISS will yield important new insights into ecosystem structure and function and provide important new observations to evaluate  the models we use to understand  how important ecosystems, such as tropical forests, will respond to a changing climate.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover
Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov (301-903-0289)

(PI Contact)
BER funded PI
Shawn Serbin  
Brookhaven National Laboratory

Lead PI
Natasha Stavros

S.P. Serbin was supported by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE-Tropics) project. The NGEE-Tropics project is supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the Department of Energy, Office of Science.  The Exploring New Multi-Instrument Approaches to Observing Terrestrial Ecosystems and the Carbon Cycle from Space workshop and participant travel costs were supported by the W. M. Keck foundation.

Stavros, NE, Schimel, D, Pavlick, R, Serbin, SP, Swann, A, Duncanson, L, Fisher, JB, Fassnacht, F, Ustin, S, Dubayah, R, Schweiger, A, Wennberg, P, “ISS observations offer insights into plant function.” Nature Ecology and Evolution, (1), 01974. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0194

Related Links
Keck workshop 
S. Serbin (DOE-TES) workshop talk & video

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