CAO@10: Celebrating a decade of advances in spatial ecology and conservation science
21st November 2016

CAO@10: Celebrating a decade of advances in spatial ecology and conservation science

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A letter of thanks from CAO Principal Investigator Greg Asner

November 2016 marks the tenth anniversary of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) program. In recognition of this milestone, made possible by a special team and our visionary donors, we celebrate discovery, ecological conservation, and environmental action driven by CAO science and technology.

Over these past ten years, the CAO program has grown and changed in composition, yet our core mission statement “to make scientific discoveries, support conservation, and galvanize action to protect the environment at large geographic scales” is more alive today than ever. Front and center on our landing page, it says “Through our advanced Earth imaging technology, novel data analytics, and technical training of next generation scientists, we continue to reach our mission goals all over the world. Our hope is that a highly visual approach can bridge an enormous gap between science, decision-making, and society for a more sustainable future.” I can’t say it better than that. Rarely have I had a chance to give a bit of CAO history, so before thanking our supporters for ten great years, I’ll first narrate what’s gone on over this time.

BC (Before CAO)

CAO’s science and technology have roots dating back to the 1990s, when the field of “hyperspectral” remote sensing was taking off at NASA. I had been hunting for ways to map and combat invasive species in Hawaii, finding that standard remote sensing technology could not meet the challenge. So I partnered with a unique group at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to work on new approaches for detecting and mapping the organisms that inhabit ecosystems. With support from NASA, we began using an imaging spectrometer called AVIRIS (Airborne Visible to Infrared Imaging Spectrometer) to explore its potential for ecological mapping in the Hawaiian Islands and in arid ecosystems of the southwest U.S. Through a close partnership between science and engineering, we developed maps of target plant species and their chemical properties, and we used these maps to investigate the impact of biological invasions on biodiversity, carbon and water cycles, and other ecosystem processes.

CAO-1: Beginnings

Continually utilizing the Hawaiian Islands as an outdoor laboratory, from 1998 until 2005, my team and I worked on an emerging science of plant chemical and species remote sensing. However, our success in the skies over Hawaii was ongoing with NASA support, and government interests centered on technology development, so I decided to go for a more applied program focused on ecological discovery and conservation. With early and catalytic support from the W.M. Keck Foundation and William R. Hearst III, the first version of the CAO series was born in November 2006 in Hilo, Hawaii. To this day, we maintain a busy laboratory there, hosted by our close colleagues at the USFS Institute for Pacific Islands Forestry.


CAO-1 in Hilo, Hawaii, November 2005

Despite its rickety ride onboard a rented Piper Navajo, complete with engine oil leaks and creaky landing gear, the CAO-1 (aka CAO Alpha) instrumentation proved its Star Trek-like ability to image forests and terrain in 3-D with kaleidoscopic color detail. CAO-1’s imaging spectrometer generated pixels with information covering the visible to near-infrared wavelength (VNIR) range (367-1050 nanometers), fused with laser-based information on the height and shape of objects like trees, buildings, volcanoes and more. The new hose of science data sent our computers to the junk pile, and we built bigger machines to crunch billions of measurements per flight.

From its birth place in Hawaii, we took the CAO-1 instrumentation (not the rickety plane!) around the world to places like Colombia, Peru, South Africa and Madagascar. Our applications expanded from invasive species to rainforest biomass, animal ecology, and archeology. We were the first to develop high-resolution forest carbon maps in the Amazon basin, which helped propel international thinking on the use of forests as a climate change mitigation strategy. With a massive scientific assault on the famous Kruger National Park, we and our South African colleagues used CAO-1’s 3D imaging capability to map plant species, termite mounds, and mammal habitat, which helped conservation scientists and managers to better preserve savanna ecosystems. We also learned how lions and elephants use the savanna landscape. Archeological discoveries were made with CAO-1 data, including how pre-historic Hawaiian societies expanded their agricultural practices, and how religious power was projected via temple building across the Hawaiian landscape. Journal paper production and public outreach soared as our array of collaborators grew into the hundreds.

JPL and CAO team working to integrate technology in preparation for CAO-2, circa January 2009.

JPL and CAO team working to integrate technology in preparation for CAO-2, circa January 2008.

While CAO-1 proved valuable on multiple scientific and conservation fronts, I saw a need to further expand our capability, both in terms of our geographic reach and our measurement suite. This realization came partly in response to our discovery that tropical trees maintain unique spectral signatures associated with an evolved portfolio of chemicals in their canopy leaves. Naming the study of this interaction Spectranomics, I decided to greatly expand our capability with a new airborne instrument package that could measure more canopy chemicals with much greater biological detail.

To do so, we needed the best engineers on Earth, and again we turned to my close colleagues at JPL – Robert Green and Michael Eastwood. The AVIRIS and CAO team fused itself for several preparatory missions in Hawaii, integrating instruments and finding ways to get the data to work for us. Following several years of this activity in the lab and field, we developed a grand plan to build a Next Generation Imaging Spectrometer, or NGIS. This would be an instrument far more capable than anything ever built, anywhere, and for any purpose.  CAO-2 would have the first NGIS, followed by a sister unit built for JPL.

CAO-2: Deepening Impact

In May 2011, we launched CAO-2, which included a leased Dornier 228-202 aircraft, and a new large sensor package called AToMS (Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System). I gave it this name for the reason that every component was designed to break a long-standing barrier in mapping the biological diversity of Earth. AToMS deeply integrates our JPL-built, very high-fidelity VSWIR (Visible to Shortwave Infrared) imaging spectrometer (380-2510 nanometers), a dual laser waveform LiDAR, and the CAO-1 VNIR spectrometer, redesigned for higher performance. AToMS uses elemental (atomic) and molecular remote sensing to quantify the biological diversity of ecosystems.

(left) JPL team builds first NGIS VSWIR sensor for CAO-2. (right) CAO-2 at launch event in May 2011.

(left) JPL team builds first NGIS VSWIR sensor for CAO-2. (right) CAO-2 at launch event in May 2011.

Following its build, and after overcoming enormous technological and programmatic challenges, CAO-2 ultimately proved essential in large campaigns over the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon, Panama, Costa Rica, South Africa, and California. The breadth of our studies expanded, with hundreds of external collaborators, maturing into very large projects at national levels, and under an international watch. We developed approaches for high-resolution forest carbon mapping, now in widespread use throughout the world. We uncovered environmentally harmful activities such as gold mining in the Amazon, and worked with government officials to implement policy actions against it. We developed the first large-scale maps of how forests function and what they contain biologically. And we worked with partners to advance our science and technology in readiness for an eventual satellite mission, or “CAO in space”.

CAO-3: New Horizons

In May 2015, we launched CAO-3. We purchased our own Dornier 228-202, and my staff tricked it out with an ultra-high tech, lightweight interior, much improved power management, better navigation and surface-to-ground communications, a much lighter version of AToMS, and a Batman-meets-Ecology paint job. We also improved the stability and performance of the VSWIR spectrometer, and innovated to extend our laboratory’s range and endurance.

CAO-3 at its launch in California, May 2015.

CAO-3 at its launch in California, May 2015.

In short, we went global. And we demonstrated our global reach in 2016, with flights across the Pacific and back, to Hawaii, Marshall Islands, Guam, and Borneo, and throughout California, then southward to map the Ecuadorian Amazon. Hundreds of terabytes of data continue to yield discoveries every day, such as the world’s tallest tropical tree discovered in Borneo, the impacts of drought on California’s forests, geologic controls on forest functioning in the Amazon, and the loss of Hawaiian native forest to a viral fungal outbreak.

With 2017 coming up fast, I envision another year of amazing campaigns, discoveries, and an ever-expanding group of science, conservation, and resource management collaborators. We’ll see what projects come together, so stay tuned via the CAO Facebook and Twitter pages.

Sincere Thanks

I have many people to thank for helping us make the ten-year mark. I thank the Carnegie Institution, including our administrative staff and faculty, for providing me the freedom and support needed to pursue our goals, and to create and recreate the CAO and its science. I thank our donors who have provided their incredible support over the years:CAO donorsEach of these donors has truly played a unique, complementary and fundamental role in helping me to generate the CAO program. But I want to call-out two particular donors who have put very long-term trust in me. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation backed me to build the CAO-Spectranomics program at time when no organization was willing to take such risk. Through their consistent funding support, MacArthur has made biodiversity mapping possible at geographic scales relevant to global conservation. Carnegie Trustee William R. Hearst III has been my key supporter since day-one, from the acquisition of our first LiDAR onboard CAO-1 to the procurement and deep modification of our aircraft for CAO-3. Without Will, we would literally be grounded. Thank you very very much.

At the writing of this letter, our records and website indicate the following program stats:

Discoveries: 1438  Projects: 604  Data Shares: 1848  Publications: 300  Collaborators: 850

I can’t thank enough our postdocs, students, collaborators, and administration for helping to make the CAO a success. And finally, I thank and pay tribute to my core CAO staff, both past and present members, for their service to our mission. We’ve come a long way, and it could not have happened without your enduring dedication, motivation, expertise, and teamwork.

Happy 10th,