Estimating Mangrove Tree Biomass and Carbon Content: A Comparison of Forest Inventory Techniques and Drone Imagery
Mangroves provide many ecosystem services including a considerable capacity to sequester and store large amounts of carbon, both in the sediment and in the above-ground biomass. Assessment of mangrove above-ground carbon stock relies on accurate measurement of tree biomass, which traditionally involves collecting direct measurements from trees and relating these to biomass using allometric relationships. We investigated the potential to predict tree biomass using measurements derived from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, imagery. This approach has the potential to dramatically reduce time-consuming fieldwork, providing greater spatial survey coverage and return for effort, and may enable data to be collected in otherwise hazardous or inaccessible areas. We imaged an Avicennia marina (grey mangrove) stand using an RGB camera mounted on a UAV. The imaged trees were subsequently felled, enabling physical measurements to be taken for traditional biomass estimation techniques, as well as direct measurements of biomass and tissue carbon content. UAV image-based tree height measurements were highly accurate (R2 = 0.98). However, the variables that could be measured from the UAV imagery (tree height and canopy area) were poor predictors of tree biomass. Using the physical measurement data, we identified that trunk diameter is a key predictor of A. marina biomass. Unfortunately, trunk diameter cannot be directly measured from the UAV imagery, but it can be predicted (with some error) using models that incorporate other UAV image-based measurements, such as tree height and canopy area. However, reliance on second-order estimates of trunk diameter leads to increased uncertainty in the subsequent predictions of A. marina biomass, compared to using physical measurements of trunk diameter taken directly from the trees. Our study demonstrates that there is potential to use UAV-based imagery to measure mangrove A. marina tree structural characteristics and biomass. Further refinement of the relationship between UAV image-based measurements and tree diameter is needed to reduce error in biomass predictions. UAV image-based estimates can be made far more quickly and over extensive areas when compared to traditional data collection techniques and, with improved accuracy through further model-calibration, have the potential to be a powerful tool for mangrove biomass and carbon storage estimation.