Open Access Research

Mapping biomass with remote sensing: a comparison of methods for the case study of Uganda

Valerio Avitabile12*, Martin Herold1, Matieu Henry345 and Christiane Schmullius2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Environmental Science, Wageningen University, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands

2 Institute of Geography, Friedrich-Schiller-University, Grietgasse 6, 07743 Jena, Germany

3 IRD, UMR Eco&Sols, Montpellier SupAgro, Bat. 12, 2 place Viala, 34060 Montpellier Cedex 2, France

4 Di.S.A.F.Ri, Università degli Studi della Tuscia, Via Camillo de Lellis, 01100, Viterbo, Italy

5 AgroParisTech-ENGREF, GEEFT, 648 rue Jean-François Breton, BP 7355 - 34086 Montpellier Cedex 4, France

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Carbon Balance and Management 2011, 6:7  doi:10.1186/1750-0680-6-7

Published: 7 October 2011



Assessing biomass is gaining increasing interest mainly for bioenergy, climate change research and mitigation activities, such as reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries (REDD+). In response to these needs, a number of biomass/carbon maps have been recently produced using different approaches but the lack of comparable reference data limits their proper validation. The objectives of this study are to compare the available maps for Uganda and to understand the sources of variability in the estimation. Uganda was chosen as a case-study because it presents a reliable national biomass reference dataset.


The comparison of the biomass/carbon maps show strong disagreement between the products, with estimates of total aboveground biomass of Uganda ranging from 343 to 2201 Tg and different spatial distribution patterns. Compared to the reference map based on country-specific field data and a national Land Cover (LC) dataset (estimating 468 Tg), maps based on biome-average biomass values, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) default values, and global LC datasets tend to strongly overestimate biomass availability of Uganda (ranging from 578 to 2201 Tg), while maps based on satellite data and regression models provide conservative estimates (ranging from 343 to 443 Tg). The comparison of the maps predictions with field data, upscaled to map resolution using LC data, is in accordance with the above findings. This study also demonstrates that the biomass estimates are primarily driven by the biomass reference data while the type of spatial maps used for their stratification has a smaller, but not negligible, impact. The differences in format, resolution and biomass definition used by the maps, as well as the fact that some datasets are not independent from the reference data to which they are compared, are considered in the interpretation of the results.


The strong disagreement between existing products and the large impact of biomass reference data on the estimates indicate that the first, critical step to improve the accuracy of the biomass maps consists of the collection of accurate biomass field data for all relevant vegetation types. However, detailed and accurate spatial datasets are crucial to obtain accurate estimates at specific locations.

forestry; global change; carbon; REDD+; sub-Saharan Africa; Land Cover; Landsat; MODIS; bio-energy