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Breaks in MODIS time series portend vegetation change: verification using long-term data in an arid grassland ecosystem

Browning, Dawn M., Maynard, Jonathan J., Karl, Jason W., Peters, Debra C.
Ecological Applications 2017 v.27 no.5 pp. 1677-1693
arid grasslands, arid lands, botanical composition, climate change, drought, ecosystems, grasses, landscapes, models, moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer, monitoring, normalized difference vegetation index, phytomass, prediction, primary productivity, rain, remote sensing, seasonal variation, soil properties, time series analysis, uncertainty, variance, vegetation cover, New Mexico
Frequency and severity of extreme climatic events are forecast to increase in the 21st century. Predicting how managed ecosystems may respond to climatic extremes is intensified by uncertainty associated with knowing when, where, and how long effects of extreme events will be manifest in an ecosystem. In water-limited ecosystems with high inter-annual variability in rainfall, it is important to be able to distinguish responses that result from seasonal fluctuations in rainfall from long-term directional increases or decreases in precipitation. A tool that successfully distinguishes seasonal from directional biomass responses would allow land managers to make informed decisions about prioritizing mitigation strategies, allocating human resource monitoring efforts, and mobilizing resources to withstand extreme climatic events. We leveraged long-term observations (2000–2013) of quadrat-level plant biomass at multiple locations across a semiarid landscape in southern New Mexico to verify the use of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) time series derived from 250-m Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data as a proxy for changes in aboveground productivity. This period encompassed years of sustained drought (2000–2003) and record-breaking high rainfall (2006 and 2008) followed by subsequent drought years (2011 through 2013) that resulted in a restructuring of plant community composition in some locations. Our objective was to decompose vegetation patterns derived from MODIS NDVI over this period into contributions from (1) the long-term trend, (2) seasonal cycle, and (3) unexplained variance using the Breaks for Additive Season and Trend (BFAST) model. BFAST breakpoints in NDVI trend and seasonal components were verified with field-estimated biomass at 15 sites that differed in species richness, vegetation cover, and soil properties. We found that 34 of 45 breaks in NDVI trend reflected large changes in mean biomass and 16 of 19 seasonal breaks accompanied changes in the contribution to biomass by perennial and/or annual grasses. The BFAST method using satellite imagery proved useful for detecting previously reported ground-based changes in vegetation in this arid ecosystem. We demonstrate that time series analysis of NDVI data holds potential for monitoring landscape condition in arid ecosystems at the large spatial scales needed to differentiate responses to a changing climate from responses to seasonal variability in rainfall.