20.09.2018 – Remote sensing expert Michael Schaepman wants to use a new aerial sensing method to investigate the complex interplay between ecosystems, species and genes. It could help measure global biodiversity. His research project is supported by the NOMIS Foundation with a donation of 5,1 Mio.

UZH Nomis Zeppelin Bruederli 6331(From left) Michael Schaepman and Ruben Garcia Santos, Ursula Fricke, and Markus Reinhard of the NOMIS Foundation at Dübendorf airfield. In the background the Zeppelin NT used for various remote sensing experiments (©Frank Brüderli)

The University Research Priority Programme (URPP) on Global Change and Biodiversity embarks on innovative avenues in this research domain by using a latitudinal gradient approach based on interactions, feedback and scale, which will yield more reliable and robust knowledge about global change processes.

View from an aircraft
The research group headed up by Schaepman is investigating the functional diversity of plants, which describes the diversity of interrelationships between ecosystems, species and genes. The group is also looking into clearly measurable plant characteristics, such as their architecture or biochemical properties. By studying these attributes, the researchers are able to draw conclusions about diversity, and for example the health of forests. To do this the scientists deploy highly specialized equipment they have developed in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and mounted in aircraft. The equipment includes a spectrometer to measure from the air the light from the sun that hits plants and is reflected. On the basis of how the plants reflect different wavelengths of light, the researchers can determine the physiological characteristics of the leaves and the nitrogen, chlorophyll and water content. This can give an indication, for example, of the activity and health of a tree. Forests are also scanned by laser to gain insights into architectural characteristics such as the height of tree crowns and the density of leaves and branches. The more diverse the structure of the crowns, for example, the more sunlight falls on leaves lower down the tree and the more efficiently the tree can harness the light for photosynthesis.

Initiative expanded thanks to NOMIS Foundation
The generous support of the NOMIS Foundation of around 5,1 million francs the process can now be tested and refined. On the Lägern, the scientists have already measured, sequenced, and developed detailed 3D modeling of around 1,300 individual trees. High volumes of data have enabled sections of the woods to be modeled virtually for comparison with spectrometric data from the air. The next step will be a control experiment where clones of these 1,300 trees are cultivated in a greenhouse to verify the propositions on the genetic diversity of plant communities. A long drawn-out process: It will take around two years before the plants are ready for the first measurement. Then they’ll be repeatedly remeasured and sequenced over a period of a further six years.

If the researchers are successful, the idea is to use the method to also investigate other ecosystems all over the world, initially from aircraft, and ultimately even from satellites in space. The scientists around Michael Schaepman are already involved in a satellite project aiming to measure biodiversity from space by the late 2020s. In the meantime the only obstacle now remaining in terms of the scalability of the methodology developed in Zurich is the availability of modern, high-resolution sensors.

Source: UZH News

 Further Information
Radio SRF 1 / Echo der Zeit, 11.09.2018
20 Minuten, 16.09.208

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