Gaughan, AE; Holdo, RM; Anderson, TM (2013). Using short-term MODIS time-series to quantify tree cover in a highly heterogeneous African savanna. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF REMOTE SENSING, 34(19), 6865-6882.
Reliable mapping of tree cover and tree-cover change at regional, continental, and global scales is critical for understanding key aspects of ecosystem structure and function. In savannas, which are characterized by a variable mixture of trees and grasses, mapping tree cover can be especially challenging due to the highly heterogeneous nature of these ecosystems. Our objective in this article was to develop improved tools for large-scale classification of savanna tree cover in grass-dominated savanna ecosystems that vary substantially in woody cover over fine spatial scales. We used multispectral, low-resolution Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite imagery to identify the bands and metrics that are best suited to quantify woody cover in an area of the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. We first used 1-m resolution panchromatic IKONOS data to quantify tree cover for February 2010 in an area of highly variable tree cover. We then upscaled the classification to MODIS (250 m) resolution. We used a 2 year time series (IKONOS date +/- 1 year) of MODIS 16 day composites to identify suitable metrics for quantifying tree cover at low resolution, and calculated and compared the explanatory power of three different variable classes for four MODIS bands using Lasso regression: longitudinal summary statistics for individual spectral bands (e.g. mean and standard deviation), Fourier harmonics, and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) green-up metrics. Longitudinal summary statistics showed better explanatory power (R-2 = 73% for calibration data; R-2 = 61% for validation data) than Fourier or green-up metrics. The mid-infrared, near-infrared, and NDVI bands were all important predictors of tree cover. Mean values for the time series were more important than other metrics, suggesting that multispectral data may be more valuable than within-band seasonal variation obtained from time series data for mapping tree cover. Our best model improved substantially over the MODIS Vegetation Continuous Fields product, often used for quantifying tree cover in savanna systems. Quantifying tree cover at coarse spatial resolution using remote-sensing approaches is challenging due to the low amount and high heterogeneity of tree cover in many savanna systems, and our results suggest that products that work well at global scales may be inadequate for low-tree-cover systems such as the Serengeti. We show here that, even in situations where tree cover is low (<10%) and varies considerably across space, satisfactory predictive power is possible when broad spectral data can be obtained even at coarse spatial resolution.