We demonstrate the synergistic use of surface air temperature retrieved from AMSR-E (Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer on Earth observing satellite) and two vegetation indices (VIs) from the shorter wavelengths of MODIS (MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) to characterize cropland phenology in the major grain production areas of Northern Eurasia from 2003–2010. We selected 49 AMSR-E pixels across Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan, based on MODIS land cover percentage data. AMSR-E air temperature growing degree-days (GDD) captures the weekly, monthly, and seasonal oscillations, and well correlated with station GDD. A convex quadratic (CxQ) model that linked thermal time measured as growing degree-days to accumulated growing degree-days (AGDD) was fitted to each pixel’s time series yielding high coefficients of determination (0.88 ≤ r2
≤ 0.98). Deviations of observed GDD from the CxQ model predicted GDD by site corresponded to peak VI for negative residuals (period of higher latent heat flux) and low VI at beginning and end of growing season for positive residuals (periods of higher sensible heat flux). Modeled thermal time to peak, i.e., AGDD at peak GDD, showed a strong inverse linear trend with respect to latitude with r2
of 0.92 for Russia and Kazakhstan and 0.81 for Ukraine. MODIS VIs tracked similar seasonal responses in time and space and were highly correlated across the growing season with r2
> 0.95. Sites at lower latitude (≤49°N) that grow winter and spring grains showed either a bimodal growing season or a shorter unimodal winter growing season with substantial inter-annual variability, whereas sites at higher latitude (≥56°N) where spring grains are cultivated exhibited shorter, unimodal growing seasons. Sites between these extremes exhibited longer unimodal growing seasons. At some sites there were shifts between unimodal and bimodal patterns over the study period. Regional heat waves that devastated grain production in 2007 in Ukraine and in 2010 in Russia and Kazakhstan appear clearly anomalous. Microwave based surface air temperature data holds great promise to extend to parts of the planet where the land surface is frequently obscured by clouds, smoke, or aerosols, and where routine meteorological observations are sparse or absent.
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