A critique of general allometry-inspired models for estimating forest carbon density from airborne LiDAR

There is currently much interest in developing general approaches for mapping forest aboveground carbon density using structural information contained in airborne LiDAR data. The most widely utilized model in tropical forests assumes that aboveground carbon density is a compound power function of top of canopy height (a metric easily derived from LiDAR), basal area and wood density. Here we derive the model in terms of the geometry of individual tree crowns within forest stands, showing how scaling exponents in the aboveground carbon density model arise from the height−diameter (H−D) and projected crown area−diameter (C−D) allometries of individual trees. We show that a power function relationship emerges when the C−D scaling exponent is close to 2, or when tree diameters follow a Weibull distribution (or other specific distributions) and are invariant across the landscape. In addition, basal area must be closely correlated with canopy height for the approach to work. The efficacy of the model was explored for a managed uneven−aged temperate forest in Ontario, Canada within which stands dominated by sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.) and mixed stands were identified. A much poorer goodness−of−fit was obtained than previously reported for tropical forests (R2 = 0.29 vs. about 0.83). Explanations for the poor predictive power on the model include: (1) basal area was only weakly correlated with top canopy height; (2) tree size distributions varied considerably across the landscape; (3) the allometry exponents are affected by variation in species composition arising from timber management and soil conditions; and (4) the C-D allometric power function was far from 2 (1.28). We conclude that landscape heterogeneity in forest structure and tree allometry reduces the accuracy of general power-function models for predicting aboveground carbon density in managed forests. More studies in different forest types are needed to understand the situations in which power functions of LiDAR height are appropriate for modelling forest carbon stocks.