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Coomes Group: Using airborne laser scanning to track the impacts of global change on forest ecosystems


Supervisor: David Coomes (Plant Sciences)
Co-Lead Supervisors: Michelle Dalponte, Research and Innovation Centre, Edmund Mach Foundation, Italy

Importance of the area of research concerned:

Forests are critical components of global carbon and water cycles but are being transformed at unprecedented rates by climate change, introduced diseases, and land conversion. Evaluating forest change, and its consequences, have been challenging over large spatial scales, relying on forest inventory systems that are expensive to run and infrequently surveyed. Repeat-survey laser scanning (aka LiDAR) is a game-changing technology for evaluating change. 3-D point clouds created by laser scanning can be used to locate hundreds of thousands of trees across landscapes and track the demography of individual (recruitment, growth and mortality) through time. We have recently used this LiDAR to evaluate the impacts of El Nino drought on canopy dynamics in Malaysian rainforests and the impacts of drainage and logging on peat-swamp forests in Indonesian. By examining changes in exquisite detail over hundreds of square kilometres, repeat-survey LiDAR is providing fresh insights into the impacts of global change.

Project summary:

Repeat-survey LiDAR will be used to record the recruitment, growth and death of trees across large areas of forest in northern Italy and Sabah. These analyses will allow the impacts of drought events, selective logging and restoration management to be assessed. Demography data will be used to parameterise simulation models with which future change will be predicted.

What will the student do?

The student will work with repeat-survey LiDAR data collected by aircraft in northern Italy and/or Malaysia. We have data that the student could work with already, but plan further surveys during the PhD. The student will delineate individual trees using existing algorithms, and develop new approaches to match trees between surveys, thereby allowing growth, recruitment and death of individuals to be measured. Trips to the field sites will provide opportunities for ground truthing of the remote sensing data. An individual-based simulator (such as SORTIE) will be used to predict future change under a range of scenarios.


  • Jucker, J. .... & Coomes, D.A. (2018) Estimating aboveground carbon density and its uncertainty in Borneo's structurally complex tropical forests using airborne laserscanning. Biogeosciences, vol. 15, pp 3811–3830
  • Asner, G. .... & Coomes, D.A. (2018) Mapped aboveground carbon stocks to advance forest conservation and recovery in Malaysian Borneo. Biological ConservationVol. 217, pp 289-310

Please contact David Coomes ( for two papers, currently in review, which use repeat-survey lidar to evaluate the impacts of drought and logging on tropical forests.



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