Forests are the largest aboveground sink for atmospheric carbon (C), and understanding how they change through time is critical to reduce our C-cycle uncertainties. We investigated a strong decline in Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) from 1982 to 1991 in Pacific Northwest forests, observed with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) series of Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometers (AVHRRs). To understand the causal factors of this decline, we evaluated an automated classification method developed for Landsat time series stacks (LTSS) to map forest change. This method included: (1) multiple disturbance index thresholds; and (2) a spectral trajectory-based image analysis with multiple confidence thresholds. We produced 48 maps and verified their accuracy with air photos, monitoring trends in burn severity data and insect aerial detection survey data. Area-based accuracy estimates for change in forest cover resulted in producer’s and user’s accuracies of 0.21 ± 0.06 to 0.38 ± 0.05 for insect disturbance, 0.23 ± 0.07 to 1 ± 0 for burned area and 0.74 ± 0.03 to 0.76 ± 0.03 for logging. We believe that accuracy was low for insect disturbance because air photo reference data were temporally sparse, hence missing some outbreaks, and the annual anniversary time step is not dense enough to track defoliation and progressive stand mortality. Producer’s and user’s accuracy for burned area was low due to the temporally abrupt nature of fire and harvest with a similar response of spectral indices between the disturbance index and normalized burn ratio. We conclude that the spectral trajectory approach also captures multi-year stress that could be caused by climate, acid deposition, pathogens, partial harvest, thinning, etc.
Our study focused on understanding the transferability of previously successful methods to new ecosystems and found that this automated method does not perform with the same accuracy in Pacific Northwest forests. Using a robust accuracy assessment, we demonstrate the difficulty of transferring change attribution methods to other ecosystems, which has implications for the development of automated detection/attribution approaches. Widespread disturbance was found within AVHRR-negative anomalies, but identifying causal factors in LTSS with adequate mapping accuracy for fire and insects proved to be elusive. Our results provide a background framework for future studies to improve methods for the accuracy assessment of automated LTSS classifications.
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