The most important job of a space probe is arguably its simplest: to gather data about other worlds. But how will we investigate a world that supports life from millions of miles away? The best place to practice is actually here on planet Earth, home to a profusion of diverse biomes. Dr. Victoria Meyer knows this firsthand. Before joining Terraformation, she worked in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), developing techniques to measure forest carbon from hundreds of miles up.
Armed with a master's degree in environmental science from the University of Bordeaux, Meyer completed her doctorate from the University of Toulouse while working at JPL. The scientists and engineers at JPL are keenly interested in accurately gathering and interpreting data about planets, including our own, from space. At any given moment, there are over 20 missions underway involving satellites pointed at the Earth, looking at everything from weather to ocean salinity to vegetation, and even earthquakes.
Technologies developed for examining far-flung worlds can be repurposed for investigating Earth to startling effect, and the reverse is equally true. Meyer’s work revolved around analyzing deforestation and carbon accumulation in tropical forests from spaceborne and airborne platforms.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to grow; the bigger the tree, the more carbon absorbed. Until recently, forest carbon estimation for large areas has required on-the-ground tree measurements that get extrapolated to the entire forest. While it’s generally sound from a mathematical standpoint, this method has some statistical downsides and can be prohibitively expensive.
Using a combination of remote sensing images and sample tree measurements taken on the ground, Meyer and her colleagues at JPL created a lower-cost method for modeling forest carbon absorption. But it’s all about the details: each species grows differently — some faster, denser, or leafier than others — and carbon absorption profiles range. Even the same species growing in two separate locations on the planet yield divergent results owing to factors like rainfall, soil conditions, or seasonal sunlight variations. The last JPL mission Meyer worked on is due to launch in 2023 and will use precision radar to probe Earth’s forests.
Meyer’s next mission was in education, first as Scientist-in-Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago teaching environmental science to art students. She then landed at Caltech in Pasadena, California, where she lectured engineering students on science communication. The students couldn’t have been more different, but Meyer says she relished the opportunity, as it’s important for scientists in any field to transmit their knowledge and passion to the next generation.
As an organization dedicated to reforesting degraded land for carbon capture, Terraformation needs to be able to quantify a land parcel’s potential to absorb and store CO2 once a native forest has been established. This is where Meyer’s expertise comes in. In 2020, she joined the Terraformation team. Now, Meyer says, she can apply her results and see direct impacts on people and forests around the world, assessing the carbon capture potential of Terraformation projects over short- and long-term timeframes.
What energizes her most is the unique alchemy at Terraformation. Here, Silicon Valley technologists steeped in project management, efficiency, and scaling meet specialists like her with deep subject matter expertise in remote sensing and carbon storage.
"The most surprising thing," Meyer notes, "was to see how passionate everyone here is about forests and the environment. I’ve been in the field for over a decade and I consider myself quite passionate, but it’s refreshing to see other people who are this excited about our work. It’s given me a new impulse to keep at it."
Dr. Victoria Meyer is a carbon scientist at Terraformation. She’s been supporting Terraformation’s work since February 2021.