Landsat 8 and ICESat-2: Performance and Potential Synergies for Quantifying Dryland Ecosystem Vegetation Cover and Biomass

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The Landsat 8 mission provides new opportunities for quantifying the distribution of above-ground carbon at moderate spatial resolution across the globe, and in particular drylands. Furthermore, coupled with structural information from space-based and airborne laser altimetry, Landsat 8 provides powerful capabilities for large-area, long-term studies that quantify temporal and spatial changes in above-ground biomass and cover. With the planned launch of ICESat-2 in 2017 and thus the potential to couple Landsat 8 and ICESat-2 data, we have unprecedented opportunities to address key challenges in drylands, including quantifying fuel loads, habitat quality, biodiversity, carbon cycling, and desertification.

In this study, we explore the strengths of Landsat 8's Operational Land Imager (OLI) in estimating vegetation structure in a dryland ecosystem, and compare these results to Landsat 5's Thematic Mapper (TM). We also demonstrate the potential of OLI when coupled with light detection and ranging (lidar) in estimating vegetation cover and biomass in a dryland ecosystem. The OLI and TM predictions were similarly positive, indicating data from these sensors may be used in tandem for long-term time-series analysis. Results indicate shrub and herbaceous cover are well predicted with multi-temporal OLI data, and a combination of OLI and lidar derivatives improves most of these estimates and reduces uncertainty. For example, significant improvements were made for shrub cover (R2 = 0.64 and 0.78 using OLI only and both OLI and lidar data, respectively). Importantly, a time series of OLI, with some improvement from lidar, provides strong estimates of herbaceous cover (68% of the variance is explained with OLI alone). In contrast, OLI data explain roughly 59% of the variance in total shrub biomass, however approximately 71% of the variance is explained when combined with lidar derivatives.

To estimate the potential synergies of OLI and ICESat-2 we used simulated ICESat-2 photon data to predict vegetation structure. In a shrubland environment with a vegetation mean height of 1 m and mean vegetation cover of 33%, vegetation photons are able to explain nearly 50% of the variance in vegetation height. These results, and those from a comparison site, suggest that a lower detection threshold of ICESat-2 may be in the range of 30% canopy cover and roughly 1 m height in comparable dryland environments and these detection thresholds could be used to combine future ICESat-2 photon data with OLI spectral data for improved vegetation structure. Overall, the synergistic use of Landsat 8 and ICESat-2 may improve estimates of above-ground biomass and carbon storage in drylands that meet these minimum thresholds, increasing our ability to monitor drylands for fuel loading and the potential to sequester carbon.


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