Amazonian landscapes and the bias in field studies of forest structure and biomass

David C. Marvin, Gregory P. Asner, David E. Knapp, Christopher B. Anderson, Roberta E. Martin, Felipe Sinca, Raul Tupayachi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

95 Scopus citations


Tropical forests convert more atmospheric carbon into biomass each year than any terrestrial ecosystem on Earth, underscoring the importance of accurate tropical forest structure and biomass maps for the understanding and management of the global carbon cycle. Ecologists have long used field inventory plots as the main tool for understanding forest structure and biomass at landscape-to-regional scales, under the implicit assumption that these plots accurately represent their surrounding landscape. However, no study has used continuous, high-spatial-resolution data to test whether field plots meet this assumption in tropical forests. Using airborne LiDAR (light detection and ranging) acquired over three regions in Peru, we assessed how representative a typical set of field plots are relative to their surrounding host landscapes. We uncovered substantial mean biases (9-98%) in forest canopy structure (height, gaps, and layers) and aboveground biomass in both lowland Amazonian and montane Andean landscapes. Moreover, simulations reveal that an impractical number of 1-ha field plots (from 10 to more than 100 per landscape) are needed to develop accurate estimates of aboveground biomass at landscape scales. These biases should temper the use of plots for extrapolations of forest dynamics to larger scales, and they demonstrate the need for a fundamental shift to high-resolution active remote sensing techniques as a primary sampling tool in tropical forest biomass studies. The potential decrease in the bias and uncertainty of remotely sensed estimates of forest structure and biomass is a vital step toward successful tropical forest conservation and climate-change mitigation policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E5224-E5232
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number48
StatePublished - Nov 24 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Canopy structure
  • Field inventory plots
  • Forest carbon
  • LiDAR
  • Peru tropical forest

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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