Recent woody vegetation trends in Sahel

Our new paper looks at recent dynamics in woody vegetation in Sahel and finds some interesting patterns which are mainly controlled by human population density.

Martin Brandt, Pierre Hiernaux, Kjeld Rasmussen, Cheikh Mbow, Laurent Kergoat, Torbern Tagesson, Yahaya Ibrahim, Abdoulaye Wele, Compton J. Tucker, Rasmus Fensholt. Assessing woody vegetation trends in Sahelian drylands using MODIS based seasonal metrics. Remote Sensing of Environment, 2016, 183, 215-225.

  • Woody cover trends are estimated for Sahel based on MODIS dry season metrics.
  • Interannual fluctuations in foliage density are attenuated to monitor woody plant trends.
  • Increases (decreases) are seen in areas of low (high) human population.
  • Recent decreases only partially offset a general post-drought increase in Sahelian woody cover.

Woody plants play a major role for the resilience of drylands and in peoples’ livelihoods. However, due to their scattered distribution, quantifying and monitoring woody cover over space and time is challenging. We develop a phenology driven model and train/validate MODIS (MCD43A4, 500 m) derived metrics with 178 ground observations from Niger, Senegal and Mali to estimate woody cover trends from 2000 to 2014 over the entire Sahel at 500 m scale.

Over the 15 year period we observed an average increase of 1.7 (± 5.0) woody cover (%) with large spatial differences: No clear change can be observed in densely populated areas (0.2 ± 4.2), whereas a positive change is seen in sparsely populated areas (2.1 ± 5.2). Woody cover is generally stable in cropland areas (0.9 ± 4.6), reflecting the protective management of parkland trees by the farmers. Positive changes are observed in savannas (2.5 ± 5.4) and woodland areas (3.9 ± 7.3).

The major pattern of woody cover change reveals strong increases in the sparsely populated Sahel zones of eastern Senegal, western Mali and central Chad, but a decreasing trend is observed in the densely populated western parts of Senegal, northern Nigeria, Sudan and southwestern Niger. This decrease is often local and limited to woodlands, being an indication of ongoing expansion of cultivated areas and selective logging.

We show that an overall positive trend is found in areas of low anthropogenic pressure demonstrating the potential of these ecosystems to provide services such as carbon storage, if not over-utilized. Taken together, our results provide an unprecedented synthesis of woody cover dynamics in the Sahel, and point to land use and human population density as important drivers, however only partially and locally offsetting a general post-drought increase.


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):

Special Issue: Remote Sensing of Land Degradation and Drivers of Change


Together with my colleagues Rasmus Fensholt, Stephanie Horion and Torbern Tagesson we edit a special issue for the open access journal Remote Sensing and we want to encourage everyone working with remote sensing and land degradation to submit a well prepared manuscript. The submission deadline is 31 May 2016. Find below the introduction text from the journal website:

Human and climate induced degradation of arable lands has been of major concern for livelihoods and food security particularly in drylands during recent decades, supporting and affecting the wellbeing of more than one-third of the global population. Monitoring vegetation productivity is of great importance because crop and livestock production is the most essential economic activity, especially in arid and semi-arid regions of the world.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’s (UNCCD) definition of desertification, or dryland degradation states that: “Land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities” followed by “land degradation means reduction or loss, in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, of the biological or economic productivity and complexity of rainfed cropland, irrigated cropland, or range, pasture, forest and woodlands”…  (UNCCD homepage,

This definition implies that change in vegetation productivity is a key indicator (but not the only one) of land degradation. Along with land mismanagement often caused by human pressure, climatic variability is a major determinant of land degradation. Given the harsh nature of the climate in drylands, it is of great policy relevance to understand potential damaging interactions between land degradation and climate change. Indeed, climate-induced changes in air temperature and soil moisture might inflict soil erosion, salinization, crusting, and loss of soil fertility or depletion of seed banks in dryland ecosystems.

Continuous long-term Earth Observation (EO) satellite data provides the only suitable means of temporally and spatially consistent data analysis across multiple scales, and EO based metrics of vegetation productivity and land degradation are of great interest for the assessment and monitoring of environmental changes in dryland regions.

This forthcoming special issue welcomes research papers focusing on: (i) monitoring ecosystem productivity (both vegetation and economic productivity) and ecosystem complexity (i.e., biodiversity); (ii) studying the impact of climate change and human pressure on land degradation processes; (iii) uncovering the driving mechanisms of observed changes in vegetation productivity. The primary region of interest will be drylands, but studies covering other parts of the globe are also welcomed.


  • EO-based methods for monitoring land degradation;
  • Vegetation/climate/anthropogenic productivity indicators;
  • Human versus climate-induced land degradation;
  • Land-use land-cover change in monitoring land degradation;
  • Multi-temporal/time-series analysis/multiple datasets;
  • Local to global scales;
  • Drivers attribution;
  • Case studies on land degradation and climate change;
  • Field evidence of degradation linked with EO data.

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.

Woody vegetation and land cover changes in the Sahel of Mali (1967–2011)

Another very interesting publication using object based methods to detect single trees on very high resolution imagery is online.

Raphael Spiekermann, Martin Brandt, Cyrus Samimi, Woody vegetation and land cover changes inthe Sahel of Mali (1967–2011), International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, Volume 34, February 2015, Pages 113-121.

It can be downloaded for free until late October using this link: 


  • Woody cover, species and land cover change over 44 years are analyzed.
  • Object-based classifications are applied with high resolution images of 1967 and 2011.
  • Climate and especially human impact have caused extensive changes.
  • Changes are not always negative and a variety of spatial variations are shown.


In the past 50 years, the Sahel has experienced significant tree- and land cover changes accelerated by human expansion and prolonged droughts during the 1970s and 1980s. This study uses remote sensing techniques, supplemented by ground-truth data to compare pre-drought woody vegetation and land cover with the situation in 2011. High resolution panchromatic Corona imagery of 1967 and multi-spectral RapidEye imagery of 2011 form the basis of this regional scaled study, which is focused on the Dogon Plateau and the Seno Plain in the Sahel zone of Mali. Object-based feature extraction and classifications are used to analyze the datasets and map land cover and woody vegetation changes over 44 years. Interviews add information about changes in species compositions. Results show a significant increase of cultivated land, a reduction of dense natural vegetation as well as an increase of trees on farmer’s fields. Mean woody cover decreased in the plains (−4%) but is stable on the plateau (+1%) although stark spatial discrepancies exist. Species decline and encroachment of degraded land are observed. However, the direction of change is not always negative and a variety of spatial variations are shown. Although the impact of climate is obvious, we demonstrate that anthropogenic activities have been the main drivers of change.

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.