Airborne laser scanning of natural forests in New Zealand reveals the influences of wind on forest carbon

Forests are a key component of the global carbon cycle, and research is needed into the effects of human-driven and natural processes on their carbon pools. Airborne laser scanning (ALS) produces detailed 3D maps of forest canopy structure from which aboveground carbon density can be estimated. Working with a ALS dataset collected over the 8049-km2 Wellington Region of New Zealand we create maps of indigenous forest carbon and evaluate the influence of wind by examining how carbon storage varies with aspect. Storms flowing from the west are a common cause of disturbance in this region, and we hypothesised that west-facing forests exposed to these winds would be shorter than those in sheltered east-facing sites.

The aboveground carbon density of 31 forest inventory plots located within the ALS survey region were used to develop estimation models relating carbon density to ALS information. Power-law models using rasters of top-of-the-canopy height were compared with models using tree-level information extracted from the ALS dataset. A forest carbon map with spatial resolution of 25 m was generated from ALS maps of forest height and the estimation models. The map was used to evaluate the influences of wind on forests.

Power-law models were slightly less accurate than tree-centric models (RMSE 35% vs 32%) but were selected for map generation for computational efficiency. The carbon map comprised 4.5 million natural forest pixels within which canopy height had been measured by ALS, providing an unprecedented dataset with which to examine drivers of carbon density. Forests facing in the direction of westerly storms stored less carbon, as hypothesised. They had much greater above-ground carbon density for a given height than any of 14 tropical forests previously analysed by the same approach, and had exceptionally high basal areas for their height. We speculate that strong winds have kept forests short without impeding basal area growth.

Simple estimation models based on top-of-the canopy height are almost as accurate as state-of-the-art tree-centric approaches, which require more computing power. High-resolution carbon maps produced by ALS provide powerful datasets for evaluating the environmental drivers of forest structure, such as wind.

Coomes (2018) Forest Ecosystems