Fungi can help NASA deduce how climate change affects forests

A JPL team has developed a new method to detect what kind of fungi trees have.

A team from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has developed a new method to detect what kind of mycorrhizae are attached to the roots of trees using only satellite images. Mycorrhizae are fungi that form mutually beneficial relationships with the roots of trees, increasing the plants' absorption capability and providing them with direct access to sugars. There are two types of mycorrhizae, and each tree/plant species is only associated with either one of them. Since the two respond differently to climate change, scientists can use the method to figure out how forests will fare in the future.

The team developed their method by looking at satellite images of the Smithsonian Institution's Forest Global Earth Observatory. This forest and its underlying network of fungi had already been mapped in the past, so the team was able to connect the trees' behavior with their corresponding mycorrhizae. In particular, they found significant differences in timing between the trees associated with each type of fungi: they start growing leaves and reach peak greenness at different times.

Armed with this knowledge, the team can detect the type of mycorrhizae trees have just by looking at satellite images of forest canopies. As such, they can use this method to determine how forests all over the globe will be affected by our changing climate, which could give us enough time to conjure up viable solutions.