Norris, JR; Walker, JJ (2020). Solar and sensor geometry, not vegetation response, drive satellite NDVI phenology in widespread ecosystems of the western United States. REMOTE SENSING OF ENVIRONMENT, 249, 112013.

Satellite-derived phenology metrics are valuable tools for understanding broad-scale patterns and changes in vegetated landscapes over time. However, the extraction and interpretation of phenology in ecosystems with subtle growth dynamics can be challenging. US National Park Service monitoring of evergreen pinyon-juniper ecosystems in the western US revealed an unexpected winter-peaking phenological pattern in normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) time-series derived from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) imagery. In this paper, we assess the validity of the winter peaks through ground-based observation of phenology and examination of solar and satellite geometry effects. To test the premise of a true vegetation response, we analyzed NDVI values extracted from a time series of ground-based digital camera ('phenocam') images collected September 2017 to December 2018 in a pinyon-juniper woodland in Arizona, US. Results show pinyon and juniper growth peaked in the warm season, as did the other species in the phenocam field of view. NDVI time series from four other sensors (Landsat 7, Sentinel-2, VIIRS, and Proba-V) confirmed that winter peaks in this ecosystem are not limited to MODIS products. Examination of NDVI time series (2003-2018) derived from daily 250-m MODIS data in the broader pinyon-juniper ecosystem revealed that solar-to-sensor angle, sensor zenith angle, and forward/back-scatter reflectance explained > 80% of intra-annual variability. Solar-to-sensor angle exerted the greatest control, and the direction of its correlation (positive) was the opposite of that which would be expected if it were driven by vegetation greenness. Solar-to-sensor angle is controlled seasonally by solar zenith angle and daily by variations in satellite overpass geometry. We mapped winter peaks across the western US in Google Earth Engine using 500-m MODIS MCD43A4 data, which correct for reflectance differences caused by view angle. In areas where winter vegetation peaks are ecologically improbable (i.e., locations with sub-freezing December temperatures), consistent winter peaks (>= 14 years in 2003 to 2018) are widespread in both pinyon-juniper and non-pinyon-juniper conifer ecosystems; winter peaks are common (>= 5 years in 2003 to 2018) across areas of shrubland. We attribute winter peaks to the positive correlation of NDVI with solar-to-sensor angle and solar zenith angle in combination with sparse, vertically oriented evergreen vegetation canopies. Increasing shadow visibility has been shown to increase overall NDVI, and the prevalence of the winter peaking in evergreen western sparse canopy ecosystems is consistent with this hypothesis. The extent of winter peaking patterns may have been previously overlooked due to temporal compositing, curve fitting, and incomplete snow screening.