A new tool to monitor aboveground vegetation carbon stocks: first application to the African continent

Our new study uses unprecedented data sources to measure vegetation carbon stock dynamics at continental scale. The study demonstrates that over the African continent, the net carbon balance is negative for 2010-2016, and that most of the carbon losses occurred in dryland savannahs. The results were published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The African continent is facing one of the driest periods in the past three decades as well as continued deforestation. These disturbances from both human pressure and climate change threaten vegetation carbon stocks and highlight the need for improved capabilities of monitoring large-scale aboveground carbon stock dynamics.

Continental scale monitoring of vegetation carbon dynamics requires satellite based techniques, however, conventional satellites are limited to sensing the upper canopy layer. Consequently, the monitoring of vegetation dynamics is limited to the top green parts of the canopies which are not directly linked to aboveground biomass carbon.

Our French colleagues around Jean Pierre Wigneron (CEA, CNES, CNRS, INRA) have produced a new data set retrieved from space-borne observations of the SMOS satellite starting in 2010. The data set is based on low frequency passive microwave emissions, which are insensitive to cloud cover and green vegetation and thus able to quantify aboveground biomass carbon of the entire vegetation layer, including stems and branches, even when the vegetation is dense.

Our group had the chance to be the first group testing these new data, with groundbreaking results. For the first time, scientists were able to monitor large scale carbon stock dynamics at annual scale. The groups expect this tool to be a key in future monitoring of carbon losses and gains for national reports and large-scale efforts, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

A first application to the African continent showed highly dynamic carbon stocks, and especially dryland savannahs showed surprisingly high gross losses which were caused by recent drought years. The study concludes that the new tool is close to be operational and highlights the importance of drylands in the global carbon balance.

Screenshot from 2018-03-27 15-03-42.png
Changes in aboveground vegetation carbon stocks in sub-Saharan Africa over 2010–2016. Regions with significant negative (carbon source) or positive (carbon sink) carbon changes are shown, respectively, in red or green.

© M. Brandt – Université de Copenhagen

Article at Nature Ecology and Evolution:

Brandt M, Wigneron J-P, Chave J, Tagesson T, Penuelas J, Ciais P, Rasmussen K, Tian F, Mbow C, Al-Yaari A, Rodriguez-Fernandez N, Schurgers G, Zhang W, Chang J, Kerr Y, Verger A, Tucker C, Mialon A, Rasmussen LV, Fan L, Fensholt R. 2018. Satellite passive microwaves reveal recent climate-induced carbon losses in African drylands. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0530-6

Further reading:

Mongabay: new remote sensing technique used to determine carbon losses in sub-saharan africa

Article at Carbon Brief



Why our research matters

At some point, many scientists working in geographic fields may have asked themselves if there is any “use” in the work we do. The main aim of a study should not be to get it published in a high impact journal but to share research results with as many people as possible. However, here comes the dilemma, high impact journals are recognized by a much wider audience, so in the end it does matter where the study is published. Our paper just published in Nature Sustainability made it into the News and Views section of Nature with the nice title “Satellite images show China going green“. It is a great summary of our work and helps to reach an even larger audience.

So what makes this work so attractive? The human footprint in satellite images is traditionally linked with degradation, conversion of forest areas into farmlands or urban areas and air pollution. Especially large population countries with a boosting economy, like China, are usually linked with the destruction of the environment. However, here we show that management and conservation activities in China can lead to a large increase in vegetation cover and carbon stocks, in spite of drought conditions. The observed increase in vegetation growth does not only improve the ecological environment by alleviating degradation, but also the magnitude of increase is found to be large enough to contribute to a greening Earth and store large amounts of carbon.

We are happy that this message made it into the Nature News section, which is certainly among the top places where scientific results can end up. It is a nice confirmation that what we do does matter and is recognized at highest levels.

Macias-Fauria, M. (2018). Satellite images show China going green. Nature, 553(7689), 411. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-00996-5

New Publication in Nature Sustainability

Now this is something really cool:
-We have a paper in the first ever issue of the new journal Nature Sustainability
-Both the cover of the first issue and the website banner are my photos I shot last summer in Southern China
-The paper is the thesis of my girlfriend and it is the cover story!

Screenshot from 2018-01-16 21-06-23

Screenshot from 2018-01-16 21-01-59The paper is super interesting and very nice to read:

Xiaowei Tong, Martin Brandt, Yuemin Yue, Stephanie Horion, Kelin Wang, Wanda De Keersmaecker, Feng Tian, Guy Schurgers, Xiangming Xiao, Yiqi Luo, Chi Chen, Ranga Myneni, Zhen Shi, Hongsong Chen, Rasmus Fensholt. Increased vegetation growth and carbon stock in China karst via ecological engineering. Nature Sustainability 1.

How does conflict affect land use? New publication!

Population and Environment in the Middle East

In November 2015, me and a colleague (Michael Degerald, visit his blog here) asked the question: how is agriculture affected in the areas seized by the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, Da’esh)? We couldn’t find much information to answer our question, so we decided to investigate it ourselves.

At first we wanted to look at changes in productivity indicated by satellite measured greenness, but later we decided to go a step deeper and look at land use activity as an indicator of land abandonment (as I had done in a previous publication). As the project moved on, more people became interested, and eventually three more co-authors were added: Petter Pilesjö (Lund University), Martin Brandt and Alexander Prishcepov (both from Copenhagen University).

Together, we conducted a land use classification based on NDVI data from MODIS based on the seasonality of the land surface. We distinguished between single cropped cropland…

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Expanding the study area: from West Africa to South China

People who know me and my research know that I am in love with the Sahel and its people, and this will never change. However, I recently had the chance to expand my research area from the semi-arid Sahel to humid China, more specifically the South China Karst. I spent around 4 months in China in 2017, and there are some major publications on the way. This area is particularly interesting, because millions of trees have been planted, and while we have a hard time to find a human footprint in satellite data over Sahel, it is more than obvious in China. It is also a very beautiful area:

Our research in the media

Our article in Nature Ecology & Evolution got some media attention, both in the Danish and the international press.

Here is our article:

Brandt, M.; Rasmussen, K.; Peñuelas, J.; Tian, F.; Schurgers, G.; Verger, A.; Mertz, O.; Palmer, J. R. B.; Fensholt, R. Human population growth offsets climate-driven increase in woody vegetation in sub-Saharan Africa. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2017, 1, 0081.

New publications!


Our fantastic team had some new publications within the past half year, they are all worth to have a look:

This one deals with the question if agricultural intensification in Sahel causes an increase or decrease in NDVI trends. Surprisingly, we find a negative NDVI trend coupled with an increase in cropped areas which means that fallowed fields have a substantially higher NDVI than cropped fields.

Open access! Here we use great data sources to document dynamics in woody vegetation in central Senegal. Field data from 2000 to 2015, fantastic aerial photos from 1994, repeat photography from 1994 and 2015, satellite imagery at 50 cm resolution from 2005-2015, and finally MODIS time series. We find a high spatial and temporal dynamic, encroachment, die off, etc. It’s a very a colourfully illustrated study which will make you feel like travelling to Senegal..

A great story as well: We document how conservation projects in Southern China are able to impact on vegetation trends and propose an index which allows to put the invested money (for conservation projects) in relation with vegetation trends to be able to determine the project effectiveness.

A very clever way to combine optical and passive microwave satellite data: We assume that optical satellite data senses the green part of the vegetation and the passive microwaves the green plus non-green parts. So we combine both to estimate the non green vegetation (i.e. the wood) and look at global trends from 2000 to 2012 which allows us to map gradual gains and losses in woody cover.

Publishing in the open access journal Remote Sensing (MDPI)


With our last article published, we are closing the special issue on land degradation for the open access journal Remote Sensing and I want to share some experiences here.

In total, 24 articles were submitted, 13 of them were published, 6 rejected without going to review, and 5 were rejected after review.

So we have an acceptance rate of 54%. Interestingly, this is very close to the 2013 statistics for all submissions, and it also reflects the overall quality of the submissions, which is average. The quality of the articles that were published in the end is ok, some are good, but rather not exceptional.

The interaction between us and the MDPI editorial staff was professional, smooth and efficient. Everything was prepared nicely for us and we could concentrate on the scientific part without any  managing aspects.

Having now 7 articles published in this journal (2 as first author) within the past 3 years, I can fully recommend publishing in Remote Sensing. Yes, the quality of the articles can not be compared with the leading journal “Remote Sensing of Environment” (here we have 4 articles now published within the past 2 years), and it is for sure easier to publish in Remote Sensing (RS) with less critical editors and reviewers. However, if you have an overall good quality article (not exceptional), there are several reasons for going for RS instead for the armada of Elsevier and Springer journals:

  • Open access: research should be available to everyone and not limited to rich countries and rich universities. Remote Sensing of Environment for example is not available at my former university, and in many German universities Elsevier journals are generally unavailable. Buying open access in these journals is possible but too expensive. Thousands of academics boycott Elsevier.
  • The authors of the article keep the rights on their research and are able to distribute their work freely.
  • Rapid processing, most of our 7 articles were published after around 2 months. The main reason is the professional editorial staff who do this work as full time job.
  • The articles are downloaded thousands of times and reach a wide audience.

One may argue the large number of average quality articles being published (being an online only journal, there are no issues and thus no article limit) swamps the scientific market and reduces importance of individual scientific work, but this is a general problem of science these days. One may also argue that the publisher MDPI is a company making money with each article they publish (and there is no limitation), so their aim is probably to publish as many articles as possible, and this is not beneficial for being critical. This might be true, however, in the end it’s up to the academic editors and the reviewers to decide if an article is published, not the company, and even the Nature and Science groups have their own mass publishing journals (Scientific Reports, Science Advances) now. Scientific publishing is about making profit.

Many people think that open access journals like RS are commercial companies making money (“you pay to get your paper published”), whereas articles published in Elsevier & co are non-commercial and real science. Here one should not forget that companies like Elsevier make billions of $$ profit each year, of which the reviewers see nothing and the editors do it as free time job being poorly paid. The universities pay absurd sums to make the articles available for their students, but many universities can not, and do not want to support this any more, but rather support the open access publishing by paying the publishing waves. In the end, this is much cheaper for the university and the article is freely available for everyone.

My personal recommendation: If you think you have an exceptional article dealing with remote sensing, there is no way around Remote Sensing of Environment, the reputation of this journal is untouchable. However, not every study we do has outstanding results, so if you do not want to wait more than a half year for a likely rejection, I personally can fully recommend Remote Sensing, the processing is rapid but still professional.

Brandt, M.; Tappan, G.; Diouf, A.A.; Beye, G.; Mbow, C.; Fensholt, R. Woody Vegetation Die off and Regeneration in Response to Rainfall Variability in the West African Sahel. Remote Sens. 2017, 9, 39.

Integrating meteorological data in biomass prediction models

Diouf, A.A.; Hiernaux, P.; Brandt, M.; Faye, G.; Djaby, B.; Diop, M.B.; Ndione, J.A.; Tychon, B. Do Agrometeorological Data Improve Optical Satellite-Based Estimations of the Herbaceous Yield in Sahelian Semi-Arid Ecosystems? Remote Sens. 2016, 8, 668.

Quantitative estimates of forage availability at the end of the growing season in rangelands are helpful for pastoral livestock managers and for local, national and regional stakeholders in natural resource management. For this reason, remote sensing data such as the Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation (FAPAR) have been widely used to assess Sahelian plant productivity for about 40 years.

This study combines traditional FAPAR-based assessments with agrometeorological variables computed by the geospatial water balance program, GeoWRSI, using rainfall and potential evapotranspiration satellite gridded data to estimate the annual herbaceous yield in the semi-arid areas of Senegal.

It showed that a machine-learning model combining FAPAR seasonal metrics with various agrometeorological data provided better estimations of the in situ annual herbaceous yield (R2 = 0.69; RMSE = 483 kg·DM/ha) than models based exclusively on FAPAR metrics (R2 = 0.63; RMSE = 550 kg·DM/ha) or agrometeorological variables (R2 = 0.55; RMSE = 585 kg·DM/ha). All the models provided reasonable outputs and showed a decrease in the mean annual yield with increasing latitude, together with an increase in relative inter-annual variation. In particular, the additional use of agrometeorological information mitigated the saturation effects that characterize the plant indices of areas with high plant productivity.

The date of the onset of the growing season derived from smoothed FAPAR seasonal dynamics showed no significant relationship (0.05 p-level) with the annual herbaceous yield across the whole studied area. The date of the onset of rainfall was significantly related to the herbaceous yield and its inclusion in fodder biomass models could constitute a significant improvement in forecasting risks of a mass herbaceous deficit at an early stage of the year.


New publications

Check out our new publications:

This paper raises awareness of data scale issues in environment migration research, for example the declining station network used in the CRU (3.2) dataset:


With a case study of a Senegalese village we examine how (and if) migration patterns are linked with climate and environmental changes.Screenshot from 2016-07-14 14-19-10.png

This paper uses LASSO and Random Forest to select the best variables from a huge pool of indices to predict wood volume in Tadjikistan. Red Edge bands show to be of high value.

Screenshot from 2016-07-14 14-27-41.png