What Four Decades of Earth Observation Tell us about Land Degradation in the Sahel

From: Mbow, C.; Brandt, M.; Ouedraogo, I.; de Leeuw, J.; Marshall, M. What Four Decades of Earth Observation Tell Us about Land Degradation in the Sahel? Remote Sens. 2015, 7, 4048-4067.

Land degradation mechanisms are related to two main categories, one related to climate change and one associated with local human impact, mostly land use change such as expansion of cultivation, agricultural intensification, overgrazing and overuse of woody vegetation. Land degradation characteristics, triggers and human influence are manifold and interrelated. Some of the indicators can be monitored using Earth Observation techniques (underlined in red):


During the last four decades, the Sahel was affected by below-normal precipitation with two severe drought periods in 1972–73 and in 1983–84. Because of this negative climate trend, many studies prioritized the Sahel “crisis” in terms of productivity loss and land degradation. These negative perceptions have been opposed with recent findings of improved greenness mostly in relation to recent improvement in rainfall.


The assessment of land degradation and quantifying its effects on land productivity have been both a scientific and political challenge. After four decades of Earth Observation applications, little agreement has been gained on the magnitude and direction of land degradation in the Sahel. The number of Earth Observation datasets and methods, biophysical and social drivers and the complexity of interactions make it difficult to apply aggregated Earth Observation indices for these non-linear processes. Hence, while many studies stress that the Sahel is greening, others indicate no trend or browning. The different generations of satellite sensors, the granularity of studies, the study period, the applied indices and the assumptions and/or computational methods impact these trends.



While there is a clearly positive trend in biomass production at Sahel scale, a loss in biodiversity and locally encroaching barren land are observed at the same time. Multi-scale Earth Observation analyses show that neither the desertification nor the greening paradigms can be generalized, as both attempt to simplify a very complex reality. Heterogeneity is an issue of scale, and very coarse-scaled vegetation trend analyses reveal a greening Sahel. However, locally-scaled studies are not uniform, observing greening and degradation at the same time.

We suggest several improvements: (1) harmonize time-series data, (2) promote knowledge networks, (3) improve data-access, (4) fill data gaps, (5) agree on scales and assumptions, (6) set up a denser network of long-term fields-surveys and (7) consider local perceptions and social dynamics, as local people’s perception of land degradation/improvements often disagree with Earth Observation analyses.

Thus, to allow multiple perspectives and avoid erroneous interpretations caused by data quality/scale issues/generalizations, we recommend combining multiple data sources at multiple scales. Furthermore, we underline the relevance of field data and experience, and results achieved by remote sensing techniques should not be interpreted without contextual knowledge.

Download the full article here: Paper at MDPI

see also:

Knauer, K., Gessner, U., Dech, S., Kuenzer, C., 2014. Remote sensing of vegetation dynamics in West Africa. International Journal of Remote Sensing 35, 6357–6396. doi:10.1080/01431161.2014.954062

Ground- and satellite-based evidence of the biophysical mechanisms behind the greening Sahel

Making use of 27 years of ground measurements, we were able to find evidence of the role of trees and grass on the greening of the Senegalese Sahel. This was made possible by a close collaboration with our colleagues from the CSE, the Centre de Suivi Ecologique in Dakar. Moreover, woody species abundance data provided by Gray Tappan from 1983 shows changes in biodiversity over 30 years. We thus provide ground based evidences against the conventional view of irreversible degradation in the Sahel.


  • biodiversity;
  • biomass monitoring;
  • degradation;
  • greening;
  • Sahel;
  • vegetation change


After a dry period with prolonged droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, recent scientific outcome suggests that the decades of abnormally dry conditions in the Sahel have been reversed by positive anomalies in rainfall. Various remote sensing studies observed a positive trend in vegetation greenness over the last decades which is known as the re-greening of the Sahel. However, little investment has been made in including long-term ground-based data collections to evaluate and better understand the biophysical mechanisms behind these findings. Thus, deductions on a possible increment in biomass remain speculative. Our aim is to bridge these gaps and give specifics on the biophysical background factors of the re-greening Sahel. Therefore, a trend analysis was applied on long time series (1987–2013) of satellite-based vegetation and rainfall data, as well as on ground-observations of leaf biomass of woody species, herb biomass, and woody species abundance in different ecosystems located in the Sahel zone of Senegal. We found that the positive trend observed in satellite vegetation time series (+36%) is caused by an increment of in situ measured biomass (+34%), which is highly controlled by precipitation (+40%). Whereas herb biomass shows large inter-annual fluctuations rather than a clear trend, leaf biomass of woody species has doubled within 27 years (+103%). This increase in woody biomass did not reflect on biodiversity with 11 of 16 woody species declining in abundance over the period. We conclude that the observed greening in the Senegalese Sahel is primarily related to an increasing tree cover that caused satellite-driven vegetation indices to increase with rainfall reversal.

Brandt, M., Mbow, C., Diouf, A.A., Verger, A., Samimi, C. & R. Fensholt (2015) Ground and satellite based evidence of the biophysical mechanisms behind the greening Sahel. Global Change Biology.