Remote sensing of vegetation in drylands: Evaluating vegetation optical depth (VOD) using NDVI and in situ data over Sahel

Tian, F.; Brandt, M.; Liu, Y. Y.; Verger, A.; Tagesson, T.; Diouf, A. A.; Rasmussen, K.; Mbow, C.; Wang, Y.; Fensholt, R. Remote sensing of vegetation dynamics in drylands: Evaluating vegetation optical depth (VOD) using AVHRR NDVI and in situ green biomass data over West African Sahel. Remote Sensing of Environment 2016, 177, 265–276.


  •  A Long-term VOD dataset is evaluated against NDVI and in situ biomass observations.
  • Both VOD and NDVI reflect the spatio-temporal patterns of biomass in West Sahel.
  • VOD captures variations of woody plant foliage biomass better than NDVI.
  • VOD and NDVI seasonal metrics differ for optimal long-term monitoring of biomass.

Monitoring long-term biomass dynamics in drylands is of great importance for many environmental applications including land degradation and global carbon cycle modeling. Biomass has extensively been estimated based on the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) as a measure of the vegetation greenness. The vegetation optical depth (VOD) derived from satellite passive microwave observations is mainly sensitive to the water content in total aboveground vegetation layer. VOD therefore provides a complementary data source to NDVI for monitoring biomass dynamics in drylands, yet further evaluations based on ground measurements are needed for an improved understanding of the potential advantages.

In this study, we assess the capability of a long-term VOD dataset (1992–2011) to capture the temporal and spatial variability of in situ measured green biomass (herbaceous mass and woody plant foliage mass) in the semi-arid Senegalese Sahel.

Results show that the magnitude and peak time of VOD are sensitive to the woody plant foliage whereas NDVI seasonality is primarily governed by the green herbaceous vegetation stratum in the study area. Moreover, VOD is found to be more robust against typical NDVI drawbacks of saturation effect and dependence on plant structure (herbaceous and woody compositions) across the study area when used as a proxy for vegetation productivity. Finally, both VOD and NDVI well reflect the spatial and inter-annual dynamics of the in situ green biomass data; however, the seasonal metrics showing the highest degree of explained variance differ between the two data sources. While the observations in October (period of in situ data collection) perform best for VOD (r2 = 0.88), the small growing season integral (sensitive to recurrent vegetation) have the highest correlations for NDVI (r2 = 0.90).

Overall, in spite of the coarse resolution of 25 km, the study shows that VOD is an efficient proxy for estimating biomass of the entire vegetation stratum in the semi-arid Sahel and likely also in other dryland areas.


AGU 2015

We had three presentations at this years AGU fall meeting in San Francisco. Find the posters and presentations as PDFs here (the copyright is with the authors):

Be cautious using GIMMS3g v0 for trend analysis!

GIMMS3g NDVI is widely used to assess vegetation trends from local to global scale. And even though it is the best long term dataset available right now (July 2015), people should be aware that a serious error affects the dataset in semi arid areas, like the Sahel, which has severe impacts on trend analysis. The dry season values around 2004 suddenly drop, which is not happening in reality. It is definitely related to the sensor change from NOAA16 to NOAA17, and also the last change to NOAA18 has an impact on the time series. The good thing is that the wet season values should be usable. The developers are aware about this problem and a new version is on it’s way. To illustrate the issue, find attached the GIMMS3g NDVI (v0) averaged over the Sahel belt, note the drop at the sensor change (first blue line) and the recovery at the next sensor change:


To further illustrate how serious this problem affects trend analysis, the same area is shown in the VOD dataset, which is found to be reliable:vod

a rough overlay highlights the different directions of annual trends:


The problem can be solved by excluding the dry season and using the small integral, calculated in TIMESAT:


see further literature:

  • Tian, F., Fensholt, R., Verbesselt, J., Grogan, K., Horion, S., Wang, Y., 2015. Evaluating temporal consistency of long-term global NDVI datasets for trend analysis. Remote Sensing of Environment 163, 326–340. doi:10.1016/j.rse.2015.03.031
  • Horion, S., Fensholt, R., Tagesson, T., Ehammer, A., 2014. Using earth observation-based dry season NDVI trends for assessment of changes in tree cover in the Sahel. International Journal of Remote Sensing 35, 2493–2515. doi:10.1080/01431161.2014.883104
  • Pinzon, J.E., Tucker, C.J., 2014. A Non-Stationary 1981–2012 AVHRR NDVI3g Time Series. Remote Sensing 6, 6929–6960. doi:10.3390/rs6086929
  • Liu, Y.Y., van Dijk, A.I.J.M., McCabe, M.F., Evans, J.P., de Jeu, R.A.M., 2013. Global vegetation biomass change (1988–2008) and attribution to environmental and human drivers. Global Ecology and Biogeography 22, 692–705. doi:10.1111/geb.12024
  • Jonsson, P., Eklundh, L., 2004. TIMESAT–a program for analyzing time-series of satellite sensor data* 1. Computers & Geosciences 30, 833–845.

Local Vegetation Trends in the Sahel of Mali and Senegal Using Long Time Series FAPAR Satellite Products and Field Measurement (1982–2010)

We finally published an article dealing with local vegetation trends in the Sahel and data quality of long term time series (GEOV1 and GIMMS3g). It is published in the open access journal “Remote Sensing” and can be downloaded for free:

Brandt, Martin; Verger, Aleixandre; Diouf, Abdoul A.; Baret, Frédéric; Samimi, Cyrus. 2014. “Local Vegetation Trends in the Sahel of Mali and Senegal Using Long Time Series FAPAR Satellite Products and Field Measurement (1982–2010).” Remote Sens. 6, no. 3: 2408-2434.

Abstract: Local vegetation trends in the Sahel of Mali and Senegal from Geoland Version 1 (GEOV1) (5 km) and the third generation Global Inventory Modeling and Mapping Studies (GIMMS3g) (8 km) Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation (FAPAR) time series are studied over 29 years. For validation and interpretation of observed greenness trends, two methods are applied: (1) a qualitative approach using in-depth knowledge of the study areas and (2) a quantitative approach by time series of biomass observations and rainfall data. Significant greening trends from 1982 to 2010 are consistently observed in both GEOV1 and GIMMS3g FAPAR datasets. Annual rainfall increased significantly during the observed time period, explaining large parts of FAPAR variations at a regional scale. Locally, GEOV1 data reveals a heterogeneous pattern of vegetation change, which is confirmed by long-term ground data and site visits. The spatial variability in the observed vegetation trends in the Sahel area are mainly caused by varying tree- and land-cover, which are controlled by human impact, soil and drought resilience. A large proportion of the positive trends are caused by the increment in leaf biomass of woody species that has almost doubled since the 1980s due to a tree cover regeneration after a dry-period. This confirms the re-greening of the Sahel, however, degradation is also present and sometimes obscured by greening. GEOV1 as compared to GIMMS3g made it possible to better characterize the spatial pattern of trends and identify the degraded areas in the study region.