Drones over the Amazon smell the air for carbon storage changes

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In Massachusetts, a project led by Harvard University researchers is monitoring the health of the Amazon basin, home to the largest rainforest in the world. This rainforest plays a crucial role in maintaining the planet’s carbon budget, absorbing and storing billions of tons of carbon dioxide annually.

But a tipping point looms on the horizon — one that may turn this vital carbon sink into one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide on the planet.  Using drones, researchers are attempting to measure how and when that could happen by mapping and monitoring the unique chemical signals emitted by trees known as volatile organic compounds.

This summer, the team journeyed deep into the Amazon and tested a VOC sampling prototype attached directly to a drone. The small sampling box pulled in air from the surrounding environment and passed it through sampling tubes that trap VOC molecules. The test was a success.