Abstract. We propose an alternative approach for the currently used biogeographic global vegetation classifications. A hierarchical vegetation classification system is proposed for consistent and routine monitoring of global vegetation. Global vegetation is first defined into six classes based on plant canopy structure and dynamics observable by remote sensing from satellites. Additional biome variability is then represented through a remote sensing derived leaf area index map, and direct climate data sets driving an ecosystem model to compute and map net primary production and evapotranspiration. Simulation results from an ecosystem function model suggest that the six canopy structure-based classes are sufficient to represent global variability in these parameters, provided the spatio-temporal variations in Leaf Area Index and climate are characterized accurately.
If a bioclimatically based classification is needed for other purposes, our six class approach can be expanded to a possible 21 classes using archived climatic zones. For example, tropical, subtropical, temperate and boreal labels are defined by absolute minimum temperature. Further separation in each class is possible through changes in water availability defined by precipitation and/or soils. The resulting vegetation classes correspond to many of the existing, conventional global vegetation schemes, yet retain the measure of actual vegetation possible because remote sensing first defines the six biome classes in our classification.
Vegetation classifications are no longer an end product but a source of initializing data for global ecosystem function models. Remote sensing with biosphere models directly calculates the ecological functions previously inferred from vegetation classifications, but with higher spatial and temporal accuracy.