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United States Forest Disturbance Trends Observed Using Landsat Time Series

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  • Disturbance events strongly affect the composition, structure, and function of forest ecosystems; however, existing US land management inventories were not designed to monitor disturbance. To begin addressing this gap, the North American Forest Dynamics (NAFD) project has examined a geographic sample of 50 Landsat satellite image time series to assess trends in forest disturbance across the conterminous United States for 1985-2005. The geographic sample design used a probability-based scheme to encompass major forest types and maximize geographic dispersion. For each sample location disturbance was identified in the Landsat series using the Vegetation Change Tracker (VCT) algorithm. The NAFD analysis indicates that, on average, 2.77 Mha y⁻¹ of forests were disturbed annually, representing 1.09% y⁻¹ of US forestland. These satellite-based national disturbance rates estimates tend to be lower than those derived from land management inventories, reflecting both methodological and definitional differences. In particular, the VCT approach used with a biennial time step has limited sensitivity to low-intensity disturbances. Unlike prior satellite studies, our biennial forest disturbance rates vary by nearly a factor of two between high and low years. High western US disturbance rates were associated with active fire years and insect activity, whereas variability in the east is more strongly related to harvest rates in managed forests. We note that generating a geographic sample based on representing forest type and variability may be problematic because the spatial pattern of disturbance does not necessarily correlate with forest type. We also find that the prevalence of diffuse, non-stand-clearing disturbance in US forests makes the application of a biennial geographic sample problematic. Future satellite-based studies of disturbance at regional and national scales should focus on wall-to-wall analyses with annual time step for improved accuracy.
  • Keywords: remote sensing, landsat, forest ecology, forest disturbance
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  • Masek, J. G., Goward, S. N., Kennedy, R. E., Cohen, W. B., Moisen, G. G., Schleeweis, K., & Huang, C. (2013). United states forest disturbance trends observed using landsat time series. Ecosystems, 16(6), 1087-1104. doi:10.1007/s10021-013-9669-9
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  • 16
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  • 6
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  • This study was supported by the NASA Terrestrial Ecology and Applied Sciences Programs and the US Forest Service (NASA Grants NNG05GE55 and NNX08AI26G for Goward, Huang, and Schleeweis; Interagency Agreement NNH11AR291 for Cohen).
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