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Scientists Are Color-Coding Forests To Make Maps Showing Best Path To Conservation

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The word "green" has become common parlance for "good for the environment." However, for researchers studying images of forests from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, doing what's good for the environment means using all of the colors of the rainbow.

The CAO, as its name suggests, is not a building but a twin-engine plane. Equipped with pulsing lasers, the planes allow scientists to create 3D maps of forests. What really makes these planes so useful for conservation efforts is the onboard spectrometer, a device that measures chemical features based on the way light gets reflected off of objects. Using these devices, scientists can make large-scale 3D maps of forests that show the invisible differences in the trees' chemical compositions in bold — and often beautiful — colors.

Awareness of these seemingly subtle differences is critical for conservation. The CAO's spectrometer can peer into forest canopies to reveal the levels of chemicals related to the trees' growth. Since trees need to take up carbon dioxide to grow, the levels of these growth-linked chemicals gives scientists an idea of how much carbon each tree is sequestering. The colors in the maps indicate the levels of these different chemicals in the forest's canopy.

"By knowing where forests change in composition, conservation can focus on saving a portfolio of different forest types instead of making the mistake of saving just one or a few," Greg Asner, who leads the research at the Carnegie Institution for Science, told Fast Company's Co.Exist.

As this latest video from the CAO demonstrates, two stands of trees that look essentially the same to the naked eye might look completely different through the "eyes" of the CAO.

By highlighting these differences with distinct colors, the CAO helps scientists find critical targets for conservation.

"Without the detailed maps that we make, it is unlikely that protections will be put in the most efficient or impactful portions of our planet, in terms of sequestering carbon and slowing climate change," Asner told Co.Exist.

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