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Open Access Research

A sample design for globally consistent biomass estimation using lidar data from the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS)

Sean P Healey1*, Paul L Patterson1, Sassan Saatchi2, Michael A Lefsky3, Andrew J Lister4 and Elizabeth A Freeman1

Author Affiliations

1 US Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO, 80526, USA

2 NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, USA

3 Colorado State University, Colorado, CO, USA

4 US Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Newtown Square, PA, 19073, USA

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Carbon Balance and Management 2012, 7:10  doi:10.1186/1750-0680-7-10

Published: 31 October 2012



Lidar height data collected by the Geosciences Laser Altimeter System (GLAS) from 2002 to 2008 has the potential to form the basis of a globally consistent sample-based inventory of forest biomass. GLAS lidar return data were collected globally in spatially discrete full waveform “shots,” which have been shown to be strongly correlated with aboveground forest biomass. Relationships observed at spatially coincident field plots may be used to model biomass at all GLAS shots, and well-established methods of model-based inference may then be used to estimate biomass and variance for specific spatial domains. However, the spatial pattern of GLAS acquisition is neither random across the surface of the earth nor is it identifiable with any particular systematic design. Undefined sample properties therefore hinder the use of GLAS in global forest sampling.


We propose a method of identifying a subset of the GLAS data which can justifiably be treated as a simple random sample in model-based biomass estimation. The relatively uniform spatial distribution and locally arbitrary positioning of the resulting sample is similar to the design used by the US national forest inventory (NFI). We demonstrated model-based estimation using a sample of GLAS data in the US state of California, where our estimate of biomass (211 Mg/hectare) was within the 1.4% standard error of the design-based estimate supplied by the US NFI. The standard error of the GLAS-based estimate was significantly higher than the NFI estimate, although the cost of the GLAS estimate (excluding costs for the satellite itself) was almost nothing, compared to at least US$ 10.5 million for the NFI estimate.


Global application of model-based estimation using GLAS, while demanding significant consolidation of training data, would improve inter-comparability of international biomass estimates by imposing consistent methods and a globally coherent sample frame. The methods presented here constitute a globally extensible approach for generating a simple random sample from the global GLAS dataset, enabling its use in forest inventory activities.

Biomass; Forest monitoring; Remote sensing; Lidar