Long-term vegetation monitoring efforts have become increasingly important for understanding ecosystem response to global change. Many traditional methods for monitoring can be infrequent and limited in scope. Ground-based LiDAR is one remote sensing method that offers a clear advancement to monitor vegetation dynamics at high spatial and temporal resolution. We determined the effectiveness of LiDAR to detect intra-annual variability in vegetation structure at a long-term Sonoran Desert monitoring plot dominated by cacti, deciduous and evergreen shrubs. Monthly repeat LiDAR scans of perennial plant canopies over the course of one year had high precision. LiDAR measurements of canopy height and area were accurate with respect to total station survey measurements of individual plants. We found an increase in the number of LiDAR vegetation returns following the wet North American Monsoon season. This intra-annual variability in vegetation structure detected by LiDAR was attributable to a drought deciduous shrub Ambrosia deltoidea
, whereas the evergreen shrub Larrea tridentata
and cactus Opuntia engelmannii
had low variability. Benefits of using LiDAR over traditional methods to census desert plants are more rapid, consistent, and cost-effective data acquisition in a high-resolution, 3-dimensional context. We conclude that repeat LiDAR measurements can be an effective method for documenting ecosystem response to desert climatology and drought over short time intervals and at detailed-local spatial scale.
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