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):

Woody plant cover estimation in drylands from Earth Observation based seasonal metrics

Brandt, M., Hiernaux, P., Tagesson, T., Verger, A., Rasmussen, K., Diouf, A.A., Mbow, C., Mougin, E., Fensholt, R., 2016. Woody plant cover estimation in drylands from Earth Observation based seasonal metrics. Remote Sensing of Environment 172, 28–38.

Download a free copy here (until 28 December 2015)

Trees, shrubs and bushes are an important element of savanna ecosystems and for livelihoods in dryland areas dependent on fuel–wood supply. During the past decades, several studies have seriously questioned prevailing narratives of a widespread and Sahel-wide decrease in woody cover, commending the relevance of large scale woody cover monitoring systems.


Most studies estimating tree canopy cover with remote sensing rely on high resolution imagery which allow direct mapping at a scale recognizing trees of a certain size as objects. However, imageries with a spatial resolution of 1–5 m are cumbersome to process, expensive, susceptible to clouds, and do only provide a static situation for a limited spatial area. Moreover, considering trees as objects, smaller isolated woody plant are missed. Moreover, the reliability of global tree cover products in semi-arid regions with open tree cover is contested.

We suggest an approach driven by vegetation phenology including in situ measured woody cover data across the Sahel and seasonal metrics from time series of MODIS and SPOT-VGT. The method is an indirect estimation of the canopy cover of all woody phanerophytes including trees, shrubs and bushes, and is based on the significant difference in phenophases of woody plants as compared to that of the herbaceous plants. In the Sahel, annual herbaceous plants are only green during the rainy season from June to October and senescence occurs after flowering in September towards the last rain events of the season. The leafing of most trees and shrubs is longer, with several evergreen species, and many woody species green-up ahead of the rains during the last month of the dry season, while annual herbaceous are dependent on the first rains to germinate.


Figure from Brandt et al., 2016: Seasonal distribution of woody leaf mass depending on the phenological type, modeled within the STEP primary production simulation model (Mougin, Lo Seen, Rambal, Gaston, & Hiernaux, 1995). The months of the wet season during which herbaceous grow are highlighted in a shaded box. Illustrations of typical herbaceous growing curves can be found in Mougin et al. (2014).

We tested 10 metrics representing the annual FAPAR dynamics for their ability to reproduce in situ woody cover at 43 sites (163 observations between 1993 and 2013). Both multi-year field data and satellite metrics are averaged to produce a steady map. Multiple regression models using the integral of FAPAR from the onset of the dry season to the onset of the rainy season, the start date of the growing season and the rate of decrease of the FAPAR curve achieve a cross validated r2 /RMSE (in % woody cover) of 0.73/3.0 (MODIS) and 0.70/3.2 (VGT). The extrapolation to Sahel scale shows an almost nine times higher woody cover than in the global tree cover product MOD44B which only captures trees of a certain minimum size. The derived woody cover map of the Sahel is made publicly available and represents an improvement of existing products and a contribution for future studies of drylands quantifying carbon stocks, climate change assessment, as well as parametrization of vegetation dynamic models.


Download the woody cover map for Sahel here

Find the full article here