Estimation of forest aboveground biomass and uncertainties by integration of field measurements, airborne LiDAR, and SAR and optical satellite data in Mexico

Carbon Balance Manag. 2018 Feb 21;13(1):5. doi: 10.1186/s13021-018-0093-5.


Background: Information on the spatial distribution of aboveground biomass (AGB) over large areas is needed for understanding and managing processes involved in the carbon cycle and supporting international policies for climate change mitigation and adaption. Furthermore, these products provide important baseline data for the development of sustainable management strategies to local stakeholders. The use of remote sensing data can provide spatially explicit information of AGB from local to global scales. In this study, we mapped national Mexican forest AGB using satellite remote sensing data and a machine learning approach. We modelled AGB using two scenarios: (1) extensive national forest inventory (NFI), and (2) airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) as reference data. Finally, we propagated uncertainties from field measurements to LiDAR-derived AGB and to the national wall-to-wall forest AGB map.

Results: The estimated AGB maps (NFI- and LiDAR-calibrated) showed similar goodness-of-fit statistics (R2, Root Mean Square Error (RMSE)) at three different scales compared to the independent validation data set. We observed different spatial patterns of AGB in tropical dense forests, where no or limited number of NFI data were available, with higher AGB values in the LiDAR-calibrated map. We estimated much higher uncertainties in the AGB maps based on two-stage up-scaling method (i.e., from field measurements to LiDAR and from LiDAR-based estimates to satellite imagery) compared to the traditional field to satellite up-scaling. By removing LiDAR-based AGB pixels with high uncertainties, it was possible to estimate national forest AGB with similar uncertainties as calibrated with NFI data only.

Conclusions: Since LiDAR data can be acquired much faster and for much larger areas compared to field inventory data, LiDAR is attractive for repetitive large scale AGB mapping. In this study, we showed that two-stage up-scaling methods for AGB estimation over large areas need to be analyzed and validated with great care. The uncertainties in the LiDAR-estimated AGB propagate further in the wall-to-wall map and can be up to 150%. Thus, when a two-stage up-scaling method is applied, it is crucial to characterize the uncertainties at all stages in order to generate robust results. Considering the findings mentioned above LiDAR can be used as an extension to NFI for example for areas that are difficult or not possible to access.