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Stanford Earth team a finalist for $1 million Indonesian sustainability prize

A group led by geophysicist Rosemary Knight is one of five teams to be selected from an initial pool of 44 teams from 10 countries to compete in the final round.

By
Ker Than
August 31, 2017
rainforest in Indonesia
Rainforest in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Credit: Flickr/CIFOR

A group using cutting-edge airborne sensing technology and led by Stanford Earth’s Rosemary Knight is one of five international teams to advance to the final phase of the $1 million Indonesian Peat Prize.

The competition is designed to find a more accurate, affordable and timely way of mapping Indonesia’s vast stores of underground peat — an important step toward its sustainable management. Indonesia is home to the largest tropical peatlands in the world and its peatlands are unique due to their high density of carbon. As peatlands in the country have been increasingly converted to make way for plantations and agriculture, or cleared by fires, that previously stored carbon is rapidly being released into the atmosphere.

The five finalist teams were selected from an initial pool of 44 teams hailing from Indonesia, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Malaysia and Singapore.

“We are thrilled to be in the finals, primarily because we are all convinced that the airborne geophysical method we are using could really be the solution they need in Indonesia to support their efforts to preserve the peatlands,” said Knight, who is the George L. Harrington Professor at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

Knight’s team is named “SkyTEAM,” a play on “SkyTEM,” the technology the group is using in the competition. SkyTEM is an airborne geophysical method that involves suspending a transmitter loop beneath a helicopter to measure the electrical resistivity of materials underground. Since peat has a unique electrical resistivity compared to rock and soil, it should be possible to not only map the extent of Indonesia’s peatlands but also estimate their thickness.

“I heard about the Peat Prize and loved the sound of the challenge and the idea of pulling together a team of geophysicists to enter the competition. It’s been a bit stressful – meeting prize deadlines, searching for helicopters, coordinating fieldwork and visas – but just a fantastic experience,” said Knight, who is also an affiliated faculty member at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Knight’s group at Stanford recently used SkyTEM to create detailed maps of underground aquifers along California’s central coast, and in the process identified previously unknown sources of freshwater.

During the semifinals, a collaboration developed between SkyTEAM and a team led by Sonia Silvestri of Duke, also using the SkyTEM technology, and the two teams have partnered together for the finals.

Indonesia hopes that an accurate map of its peatlands will lead to more sustainable peatland management and a sharp reduction in the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

“There is real political will in Indonesia to solve the environmental issues associated with the slashing and burning of its peatlands,” said Noah Dewar, a graduate student in Knight’s lab who is part of SkyTEAM.

The final phase of competition, which has all of the teams applying their methods to map peat thickness on a test site in Indonesia, is happening now through the end of December, with the winner expected to be announced early next year.