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A Landsat time series approach to characterize bark beetle and defoliator impacts on tree mortality and surface fuels in conifer forests

Meigs, Garrett W., Kennedy, Robert E., Cohen, Warren B.
Remote sensing of environment 2011 v.115 no.12 pp. 3707-3718
Choristoneura occidentalis, Dendroctonus ponderosae, Landsat, Pinus contorta var. latifolia, algorithms, bark beetles, basal area, coniferous forests, correlation, decline, forest health, forest litter, fuels, landscapes, mortality, remote sensing, surveys, time series analysis, tree and stand measurements, tree mortality, trees, wildfires, Cascade Mountain region, Oregon
Insects are important forest disturbance agents, and mapping their effects on tree mortality and surface fuels represents a critical research challenge. Although various remote sensing approaches have been developed to monitor insect impacts, most studies have focused on single insect agents or single locations and have not related observed changes to ground-based measurements. This study presents a remote sensing framework to (1) characterize spectral trajectories associated with insect activity of varying duration and severity and (2) relate those trajectories to ground-based measurements of tree mortality and surface fuels in the Cascade Range, Oregon, USA. We leverage a Landsat time series change detection algorithm (LandTrendr), annual forest health aerial detection surveys (ADS), and field measurements to investigate two study landscapes broadly applicable to conifer forests and dominant insect agents of western North America. We distributed 38 plots across multiple forest types (ranging from mesic mixed-conifer to xeric lodgepole pine) and insect agents (defoliator [western spruce budworm] and bark beetle [mountain pine beetle]). Insect effects were evident in the Landsat time series as combinations of both short- and long-duration changes in the Normalized Burn Ratio spectral index. Western spruce budworm trajectories appeared to show a consistent temporal evolution of long-duration spectral decline (loss of vegetation) followed by recovery, whereas mountain pine beetle plots exhibited both short- and long-duration spectral declines and variable recovery rates. Although temporally variable, insect-affected stands generally conformed to four spectral trajectories: short-duration decline then recovery, short- then long-duration decline, long-duration decline, long-duration decline then recovery. When comparing remote sensing data with field measurements of insect impacts, we found that spectral changes were related to cover-based estimates (tree basal area mortality [R² ₐdⱼ=0.40, F₁,₃₄=24.76, P<0.0001] and down coarse woody detritus [R² ₐdⱼ=0.29, F₁,₃₂=14.72, P=0.0006]). In contrast, ADS changes were related to count-based estimates (e.g., ADS mortality from mountain pine beetle positively correlated with ground-based counts [R² ₐdⱼ=0.37, F₁,₂₂=14.71, P=0.0009]). Fine woody detritus and forest floor depth were not well correlated with Landsat- or aerial survey-based change metrics. By characterizing several distinct temporal manifestations of insect activity in conifer forests, this study demonstrates the utility of insect mapping methods that capture a wide range of spectral trajectories. This study also confirms the key role that satellite imagery can play in understanding the interactions among insects, fuels, and wildfire.