Variations in northern vegetation activity inferred from satellite data of vegetation index during 1981 to 1999


  • Liming Zhou,

  • Compton J. Tucker,

  • Robert K. Kaufmann,

  • Daniel Slayback,

  • Nikolay V. Shabanov,

  • Ranga B. Myneni


The northern high latitudes have warmed by about 0.8°C since the early 1970s, but not all areas have warmed uniformly [Hansen et al., 1999]. There is warming in most of Eurasia, but the warming rate in the United States is smaller than in most of the world, and a slight cooling is observed in the eastern United States over the past 50 years. These changes beg the question, can we detect the biotic response to temperature changes? Here we present results from analyses of a recently developed satellite-sensed normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data set for the period July 1981 to December 1999: (1) About 61% of the total vegetated area between 40°N and 70°N in Eurasia shows a persistent increase in growing season NDVI over a broad contiguous swath of land from central Europe through Siberia to the Aldan plateau, where almost 58% (7.3×106 km2) is forests and woodlands; North America, in comparison, shows a fragmented pattern of change in smaller areas notable only in the forests of the southeast and grasslands of the upper Midwest, (2) A larger increase in growing season NDVI magnitude (12% versus 8%) and a longer active growing season (18 versus 12 days) brought about by an early spring and delayed autumn are observed in Eurasia relative to North America, (3) NDVI decreases are observed in parts of Alaska, boreal Canada, and northeastern Asia, possibly due to temperature-induced drought as these regions experienced pronounced warming without a concurrent increase in rainfall [Barber et al., 2000]. We argue that these changes in NDVI reflect changes in biological activity. Statistical analyses indicate that there is a statistically meaningful relation between changes in NDVI and land surface temperature for vegetated areas between 40°N and 70°N. That is, the temporal changes and continental differences in NDVI are consistent with ground-based measurements of temperature, an important determinant of biological activity. Together, these results suggest a photosynthetically vigorous Eurasia relative to North America during the past 2 decades, possibly driven by temperature and precipitation patterns. Our results are in broad agreement with a recent comparative analysis of 1980s and 1990s boreal and temperate forest inventory data [United Nations, 2000].