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Peru's High Resolution Map

Stanford University scientists have produced the first-ever high-resolution carbon geography of Peru, a country whose tropical forests are among the world’s most vital in terms of mitigating the global impact of climate change.

Released today, the 69-page report to Peru’s Ministry of the Environment could become a tool itself to battle rising temperatures. It is complete with vivid 3-D maps that pinpoint with a high degree of certainty the carbon density of Peru’s vast and varied landscape, from its western deserts and savannas, to its lowland forests, to its soaring Andean peaks, to its lush eastern Amazon rainforests.

The maps also reveal in sharp detail what’s missing: large swaths of once carbon-laden jungles now stripped bare by the extraction industry. Many of Peru’s gold, copper and silver mines operate legally; many of them do not. Environmental devastation is often the result.

The report represents two years of intensive aerial surveying by Greg Asner, a global ecologist with the Carnegie Institute for Science at Stanford University, and his team that operates the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO).

The CAO is a twin-engine turboprop Dornier 228 filled with more than $10 million in the latest short-wave and infrared sensors. Those tools can scan as much as 100,000 hectares (240,000 acres) a day at a density of just one hectare (2.4 acres). At that level of precision, the data reveal not only the height of the trees below, but also the individual leaves on each tree as well as the chemical activity in all those leaves.

Asner’s team sampled 16 million acres of ecosystems within Peru’s 320-million total acreage. Those samples were scaled up to a country-wide map using field plots and existing satellite imagery. Colors in the national map indicate how much carbon is stored above ground. The scale goes from blue — zero carbon — to dark red in the highest areas.

The report found, for example, that 53 percent of all Peruvian carbon is stored in one large Amazonian region — Loreto, followed by Ucayali and Madre de Dios (26 percent combined).

Asner’s report emphasizes its underlying motivation and connection to climate-change mitigation: if global markets are going to value carbon at a competitive rate as an incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, countries like Peru will need to know with great certainty how much carbon their forests contain when it comes to negotiating prices for carbon offsets.

“Peru’s minister of the environment can make very good use of this information,” says Enrique Ortiz, one of Peru’s leading conservationists and a senior program officer with the Blue Moon Fund in Washington, D.C., which supports global environmental projects. “It is a good proxy for creating mechanisms to reward good action, like which areas need to be protected and how to manage carbon trade. It also shows us where illegal mining is taking place, and that’s important, too.”
Greg Asner, Carnegie Institute for ScienceGreg Asner, Carnegie Institute for Science

Asner and his Carnegie scientists used the CAO to map Panama’s carbon stock a year ago. But he says his maps of Peru are far larger and more accurate with potentially a broader impact.

“These maps suddenly place Peru at the very forefront of the challenge to combat climate change,” says Asner, whose 2013 TED talk on his aerial research has 522,000 views. “It’s a sea change in capabilities. It will enable the country to use its carbon stock as a tool for engaging the international community to slow the rate of deforestation and forest degradation through conservation.”