Nov 16, 2015

New way to measure crop yields from space

A Stanford-led team has used satellites to measure a special light emitted by plants to estimate crop yields with more accuracy than ever before. This advance will help scientists study how crops respond to climate change.

Researchers are turning to technology to help safeguard the global food supply.

Scientists have used satellites to collect agricultural data since 1972, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) pioneered the practice of using the color – or "greenness" – of reflected sunlight to map plant cover over the entire globe.

"This was an amazing breakthrough that fundamentally changed the way we view our planet," said Joe Berry, professor of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a co-author of the study. "However, these vegetation maps are not ideal predictors of crop productivity. What we need to know is growth rate rather than greenness."

The growth rate can tell researchers what size yield to expect from crops by the end of the growing season. The higher the growth rate of a soybean plant or stalk of corn, for instance, the greater the harvest from a mature plant.

"What we need to measure is flux – the carbon dioxide that is exchanged between plants and the atmosphere – to understand photosynthesis and plant growth," Guan said. "How do you use color to infer flux? That's a big gap."

Solar-induced fluorescence

Recently, researchers at NASA and several European institutes discovered how to measure this flux, called solar-induced fluorescence, from satellites that were originally designed for measuring ozone and other gases in the atmosphere.

A plant uses most of the energy it absorbs from the sun to grow via photosynthesis, and dissipates unused energy as heat. It also passively releases between 1 and 2 percent of the original solar energy absorbed by the plant back into the atmosphere as fluorescent light. Guan's team worked out how to distinguish the tiny flow of specific fluorescence from the abundance of reflected sunlight that also arrives at the satellite.

Global Change Biology - Improving the monitoring of crop productivity using spaceborne solar-induced fluorescence

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