Publications

Analysis of vegetation-activity trends in a global land degradation framework

Jong, R. de

Summary

Land degradation is a global issue on a par with climate change and loss of biodiversity, but its extent and severity are only roughly known and there is little detail on the immediate processes – let alone the drivers. Earth-observation methods enable monitoring of land resources in a consistent, physical way and on global scale by making use of vegetation activity and/or cover as proxies. A well-known spectral proxy is the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which is available in high temporal resolution time series since the early 1980s. In this work, harmonic analyses and non-parametric trend tests were applied to the GIMMS NDVI dataset (1981–2008) in order to quantify positive changes (or greening) and negative changes (browning). Phenological shifts and variations in length of growing season were accounted for using analysis by vegetation development stage rather than by calendar day. This approach does not rely on temporal aggregation for elimination of seasonal variation. The latter might introduce artificial trends as demonstrated in the chapter on the modifiable temporal unit problem. Still, a major assumption underlying the analysis is that trends were invariant, i.e. linear or monotonic, over time. However, these monotonic trends in vegetation activity may consist of an alternating sequence of greening and/or browning periods. This effect and the contribution of short-term trends to longer-term change was analysed using a procedure for detection of trend breaks. Both abrupt and gradual changes were found in large parts of the world, especially in (semi-arid) shrubland and grassland. Many abrupt changes were found around large-scale natural influences like the Mt Pinatubo eruption in 1991 and the strong 1997/98 El Niño event. This marks the importance of accounting for trend changes in the analysis of long-term NDVI time series. These new change-detection techniques advance our understanding of vegetation variability at a multi-decadal scale, but do not provide links to driving processes. It is very complex to disentangle all natural and human drivers and their interactions. As a first step, the spatial relation between changes in climate parameters and changes in vegetation activity was addressed in this work. It appeared that a substantial proportion (54%) of the spatial variation in NDVI changes could be associated to climatic changes in temperature, precipitation and incident radiation, especially in forest biomes. In other regions, the lack of such associations might be interpreted as human-induced land degradation. With these steps we demonstrated the value of global satellite records for monitoring land resources, although many steps are still to be taken.