Astronomers talk climate change and biodiversity in pioneering project

30th October 2013

Astronomers are putting their telescopes aside this week (30-31 October) to look at climate change and biodiversity as they come together with tropical forest researchers to look at how tropical forest changes affect global warming and species distribution.

Remote sensing satellites have collected global data for over 40 years but there is still no mechanism to convert the data into global information on key aspects of global change, including tropical forest area change, for scientists to produce reliable estimates of carbon fluxes and species loss. Tropical forests contain half of all carbon stored in vegetation and at least half of all species.

A network of astronomers co-ordinated by the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE) and a group of tropical forest researchers led by the University of Leeds are coming together at ROE to discuss a pioneering project called ASTROTROP, funded by STFC, which aims to bridge this information gap.

Scientists will exchange and combine their databases on changes in forest area, biomass and species distribution leading to improvements in global estimates. The two year project will pave the way for a Pan-Tropical Forest Observatory that will allow global change scientists to observe and analyse changes on Planet Earth, just as astronomers have observed the universe through their telescopes for centuries.

In the 1990s, astronomers faced a similar challenge to those faced by global change scientists today: how to combine multiple digital maps showing visible, infrared, X-ray and other features of the universe. To meet this challenge STFC funded the development of AstroGrid virtual observatory software. This software enables any astronomer to combine multiple digital maps from different locations across the world using the World Wide Web.

STFC is now funding the two-year ASTROTROP project to test the feasibility of using AstroGrid software to monitor the multiple attributes of tropical forests as well.

"ASTROTROP will help global change scientists to start measuring Planet Earth with the same rigour as astronomers measure the stars", says Dr Alan Grainger, of the School of Geography at the University of Leeds.

"It's very satisfying to be able to share experiences from very different areas" says Professor Andy Lawrence, of the University of Edinburgh, who co-ordinates the astronomical side of the project. "The similarities are closer than we thought. For example, the number of stars in the Milky Way is very similar to the number of trees in tropical forests on Planet Earth".

The work was funded through STFC’s Challenge Led Applied Systems Programme (CLASP) which supports the application and commercialisation of STFC research in key global research challenge areas. STFC invited environment sector experts to highlight challenges the industry faced and supported the STFC community to respond with projects that would address these issues and provide commercial solutions.

Further information

More details can be found here:

Edinburgh University Press Release, University of Leeds Press Release


There are about 400 billion trees in the tropical forests and about 200 billion stars in the Milky Way.

There are about 200 billion stars in the Milky Way

Image 1:

Credit: Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

There are about 400 billion trees in the tropical forests

Image 2:

Credit: Alan Grainger