Widespread tree mortality events have recently been observed in several biomes. To effectively quantify the severity and extent of these events, tools that allow for rapid assessment at the landscape scale are required. Past studies using high spatial resolution satellite imagery have primarily focused on detecting green, red, and gray tree canopies during and shortly after tree damage or mortality has occurred. However, detecting trees in various stages of death is not always possible due to limited availability of archived satellite imagery. Here we assess the capability of high spatial resolution satellite imagery for tree mortality detection in a southwestern U.S. mixed species woodland using archived satellite images acquired prior to mortality and well after dead trees had dropped their leaves. We developed a multistep classification approach that uses: supervised masking of non-tree image elements; bi-temporal (pre- and post-mortality) differencing of normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and red:green ratio (RGI); and unsupervised multivariate clustering of pixels into live and dead tree classes using a Gaussian mixture model. Classification accuracies were improved in a final step by tuning the rules of pixel classification using the posterior probabilities of class membership obtained from the Gaussian mixture model. Classifications were produced for two images acquired post-mortality with overall accuracies of 97.9% and 98.5%, respectively. Classified images were combined with land cover data to characterize the spatiotemporal characteristics of tree mortality across areas with differences in tree species composition. We found that 38% of tree crown area was lost during the drought period between 2002 and 2006. The majority of tree mortality during this period was concentrated in piñon-juniper (Pinus edulis-Juniperus monosperma) woodlands. An additional 20% of the tree canopy died or was removed between 2006 and 2011, primarily in areas experiencing wildfire and management activity. -Our results demonstrate that unsupervised clustering of bi-temporal NDVI and RGI differences can be used to detect tree mortality resulting from numerous causes and in several forest cover types.
Additional publication details
Quantifying tree mortality in a mixed species woodland using multitemporal high spatial resolution satellite imagery