Vegetation productivity patterns at high northern latitudes: a multi-sensor satellite data assessment

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Abstract

Satellite-derived indices of photosynthetic activity are the primary data source used to study changes in global vegetation productivity over recent decades. Creating coherent, long-term records of vegetation activity from legacy satellite data sets requires addressing many factors that introduce uncertainties into vegetation index time series. We compared long-term changes in vegetation productivity at high northern latitudes (>50°N), estimated as trends in growing season NDVI derived from the most widely used global NDVI data sets. The comparison included the AVHRR-based GIMMS-NDVI version G (GIMMSg) series, and its recent successor version 3g (GIMMS3g), as well as the shorter NDVI records generated from the more modern sensors, SeaWiFS, SPOT-VGT, and MODIS. The data sets from the latter two sensors were provided in a form that reduces the effects of surface reflectance associated with solar and view angles. Our analysis revealed large geographic areas, totaling 40% of the study area, where all data sets indicated similar changes in vegetation productivity over their common temporal record, as well as areas where data sets showed conflicting patterns. The newer, GIMMS3g data set showed statistically significant (α = 0.05) increases in vegetation productivity (greening) in over 15% of the study area, not seen in its predecessor (GIMMSg), whereas the reverse was rare (<3%). The latter has implications for earlier reports on changes in vegetation activity based on GIMMSg, particularly in Eurasia where greening is especially pronounced in the GIMMS3g data. Our findings highlight both critical uncertainties and areas of confidence in the assessment of ecosystem-response to climate change using satellite-derived indices of photosynthetic activity. Broader efforts are required to evaluate NDVI time series against field measurements of vegetation growth, primary productivity, recruitment, mortality, and other biological processes in order to better understand ecosystem responses to environmental change over large areas.

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