GLOBE-Net, October 10, 2012 - When Robert Falls
was a boy he dreamed of becoming an astronaut. As a
young man he was selected from a field of 2400 applicants to be
part of the intensive evaluation process to choose Canada's first
team of space bound adventurers.
But a career as astronaut was not to be, and he returned to
finish his doctoral studies in resource management science at UBC,
undertaking research into photosynthesis and carbon
sequestration. Following graduation, he took this scientific
knowledge and a passion for the environment into the business
world, leading the Canadian energy industry in sustainable
development and climate change policy.
In 1994 he founded the Greenhouse Emissions Management
Consortium (Gemco), Canada's largest consortium of carbon emitters,
and in 1997 began working on climate mitigation projects in China
for Shell Canada Ltd.
Following the China experience, which focussed on technology
transfer, he explored the carbon sequestration potential of
oceans. In 2004, Robert finally settled on forest ecosystems
as the most practical and necessary focus for climate
mitigation. ERA, a Canadian-based pioneer in forest
carbon offset programs and project development, was born.
Following a seven year term, Dr Falls stepped down as ERA
Carbon Offsets C.E.O. (See GLOBE-Net article "ERA Acquisitions to Create Powerhouse Carbon
Offsets Company in BC"), to combine his first interest in
space, with tackling what he continues to believe are amongst
humanity's greatest challenges - managing the world's ecosystems
and resources, and tackling climate change.
"There is more at stake than conservation and atmospheric
instability. Ecosystems and the associated natural resources
they provide us are tightly linked to global and local economies,"
says Falls. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food
we eat, the energy we consume, are all derived from and cycled
through our fragile Biosphere.
"Until mankind ventured into space, our
impression of Earth's life support system was highly distorted.
The reality is that the thin blue line of our atmosphere is
about equivalent in scale to the film of our breath on a billiard
ball." Robert Falls
"If we start with the premise that we are loading the atmosphere
with carbon dioxide much faster than the planet's photosynthetic
systems, largely forests, are removing it," he says " then it
becomes clear that we must manage the equation to balance
carbon emissions and carbon removals. If we fail, we will
leave a legacy of climatic instability and depleted resources for
future generations to grapple with".
Better Forest Management
What then is the solution? "A better system of management is a
good start, -- as the adage goes, 'we cannot manage what we cannot
monitor.' Clearly what we require is a cost-effective system to
monitor forests on a global scale" says Falls.
Finding that cost-effective system is at the heart of his latest
venture as co-founder of Biosphere Management Systems Inc. (BMSI),
a company focussed on providing an effective space-based
platform for global forest monitoring.
"The world's four billion hectares of forests are currently
degrading and disappearing at an unprecedented rate, and not just
in developing countries", notes Falls.
British Columbia has lost nearly 20 million hectares of forests
due to the pine beetle infestations, believed to be exacerbated by
climate change. This is the equivalent to over 70 years of logging,
and will have profound impacts on the economy of the province for
decades to come. Russia and Canada share the great boreal
forests, accounting for one third of the total global forest cover.
Beetle infestations, unauthorized logging, and unsustainable
harvesting present a spectrum of management challenges to these and
other countries having significant forest assets.
On average, the world's total forests experience a 2% annual
change due to all forms of major disturbance. That may seem small
in relative terms, but on-the-ground the implications can be
dramatic and long-lived.
As a consequence of pine beetle infestations, B.C.'s forests
have transitioned from being a net remover of carbon dioxide, to a
net source, now eclipsing industrial emissions. Less carbon
removed from the atmosphere translates into less wood produced, as
wood is composed of atmospheric carbon removed by
photosynthesis. Impacts to the economy will be
increasingly significant, including mill closures, job
losses, and an uncertain future for many forest dependent
Restoring blighted areas requires an understanding of
current environmental conditions and dynamics to ensure that
whatever measures are undertaken will prove to be cost-effective
and sustainable. But before that, impacted areas need to be
identified and characterized.
Remote Sensing from Space
It is neither practical nor cost-effective to monitor the global
forests on the ground, or even using airborne systems. Enter
space-based remote sensing and BMSI.
Using the capabilities of latest generation wide-scanning radar
and multi-spectral optical satellites, it is now possible to
delineate the 98% of the forests that have not had any significant
disruption, and therefore do not require further management
resources and attention, from the 2% that do. This will allow
resource managers to cost-effectively deploy assets to address the
areas of change.
As the planet's major forest areas are often hidden by cloud,
synthetic aperture radar satellites such as Canada's RADARSAT-2
could be effectively used to acquire data through cloud and
darkness. At the same time, multi-spectral optical satellites
can "zoom in" on specific areas of interest to provide more
detailed information on the dynamics of the disturbances that are
changing forest cover on the ground.
One such system is offered by RapidEye, a constellation of 5
high-resolution satellites that cover the world's forests every 2
days. These satellites can be used to determine the source of
disturbances and thereby help forest managers to pinpoint
strategies to deal with problems at hand, or deploy other assets
such as airborne photography or ground personnel.
RapidEye's space assets were first developed in Germany in part
through the help of the European Union, the State of Brandenburg
and a banking consortium consisting of KfW, Commerzbank, and Export
Development Canada, with Vancouver-based MacDonald Dettwiler and
Associates as a prime contractor. RapidEye's assets have been
recently acquired by BlackBridge Aerospace, a Canadian company that
provides satellite and ground support services from facilities in
Authorized users will use BMSI tools and analytics not only to
determine change, but help determine the cause of such change. The
automation of change detection using the hierarchical approach
could provide the key to cost-effective global forest
BMSI in association with industry, government and university
researchers have established an initial pilot project covering
100,000 square kilometers of BC's diverse forest types. The goal of
the system is to not only collect and calibrate satellite data from
BC forests in a timely manner, but to perform computation on this
data in a way that is both practical and predictive.
If successful, the market rollout of the technology will begin
across Canada and then expand internationally through BMSI's
network of associates, using a proprietary web-based environment
that will allow users in each country to subscribe to and become
part of a secure Cloud structure.
During his years at ERA Carbon Offsets, Dr. Falls and his team
implemented innovative award-winning forest projects that tapped
carbon finance as a means for climate mitigation and conservation
in Canada, the United States, and Africa.
In an exclusive interview with GLOBE-Net earlier
this year, Dr. Falls stated that "When we founded ERA, and before
our first tree was in the ground, I would say that our goal was to
start a wave of ecological restoration and protection in our own
backyard that would reverberate around the world."
Robert Falls' return to space via Biosphere Management Systems
Inc may be less exciting than an astronaut's walk in space, but it
could prove to be far more important in helping the rest of us back
on earth to solve the global problems of climate change and