Estimating aboveground carbon density and its uncertainty in Borneo’s structurally complex tropical forests using airborne laser scanning

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Borneo contains some of the world's most biodiverse and carbon dense tropical forest, but this 750,000-km2 island has lost 62% of its old-growth forests within the last 40 years. Efforts to protect and restore the remaining forests of Borneo hinge on recognising the ecosystem services they provide, including their ability to store and sequester carbon. Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS) is a remote sensing technology that allows forest structural properties to be captured in great detail across vast geographic areas. In recent years ALS has been integrated into state-wide assessment of forest carbon in Neotropical and African regions, but not yet in Asia. For this to happen new regional models need to be developed for estimating carbon stocks from ALS in tropical Asia, as the forests of this region are structurally and compositionally distinct from those found elsewhere in the tropics. By combining ALS imagery with data from 173 permanent forest plots spanning the lowland rain forests of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, we develop a simple-yet-general model for estimating forest carbon stocks using ALS-derived canopy height and canopy cover as input metrics. An advanced feature of this new model is the propagation of uncertainty in both ALS- and ground-based data, allowing uncertainty in hectare-scale estimates of carbon stocks to be quantified robustly. We show that the model effectively captures variation in aboveground carbons stocks across extreme disturbance gradients spanning tall dipterocarp forests and heavily logged regions, and clearly outperforms existing ALS-based models calibrated for the tropics, as well as currently available satellite-derived products. Our model provides a simple, generalised and effective approach for mapping forest carbon stocks in Borneo, providing a key tool to support the protection and restoration of its tropical forests.

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