Empirical Methods for Remote Sensing of Nitrogen in Drylands May Lead to Unreliable Interpretation of Ecosystem Function

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Nitrogen (N) has been linked to different ecosystem processes, and retrieving this important foliar biochemical constituent from remote sensing observations is of widespread interest. Since N is not explicitly represented in physically based radiative transfer models, empirical methods have been used as an alternative. The spectral bands selected during the calibration of empirical methods have been interpreted in the context of light-N interactions and, consequently, ecosystem function. The low amount of leaves on shrubs and their sparse distribution in drylands create an environment, in which the canopy structure and the bright background soil play an important role in the canopy total radiation budget. In this paper, we examine the assumption that removing the impact of canopy structure and soil will result in improved N retrieval using the empirical methods. We report the inconsistencies in the selection of spectral bands among the empirical approaches. Moreover, these methods are sensitive to the scale of the study and band transformations. Using the generalized theory of canopy spectral invariants, we found that at the canopy scale, a combination of canopy structure and soil dominates the total canopy radiation. At the plot scale, soil contributes up to 95% of the total reflectance. Correction for these two confounding factors leads to no correlation between N and vegetation reflectance at both scales. We conclude that while cross-validated predictive models may be statistically achievable, caution should be taken when interpreting their results in the context of N-light interactions and ecosystem function. Our approach can be extended to all terrestrial ecosystems with multiple layers of canopy and understory.