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Identifying Ecosystem Function Shifts in Africa Using Breakpoint Analysis of Long-Term NDVI and RUE Data

Higginbottom, Thomas P and Symeonakis, Elias (2020) Identifying Ecosystem Function Shifts in Africa Using Breakpoint Analysis of Long-Term NDVI and RUE Data. Remote Sensing, 12 (11). p. 1894.


Available under License Creative Commons Attribution.

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Time-series of vegetation greenness data, derived from Earth-observation imagery, have become a key source of information for studying large-scale environmental change. The ever increasing length of such series allows for a range of indicators to be derived and for increasingly complex analyses to be applied. This study presents an analysis of trends in vegetation productivity—measured using the Global Inventory Monitoring and Modelling System third generation (GIMMS3g) Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data—for African savannahs, over the 1982–2015 period. Two annual metrics were derived from the 34 year dataset: the monthly, smoothed NDVI (the aggregated growth season NDVI) and the associated Rain Use Efficiency (growth season NDVI divided by annual rainfall). These indicators were then used in a BFAST-based change-point analysis, allowing the direction of change over time to change and the detection of one major break in the time-series. We also analysed the role of land cover type and climate zone as associations of the observed changes. Both methods agree that vegetation greening was pervasive across African savannahs, although RUE displayed less significant changes than NDVI. Monotonically increasing trends were the most common trend type for both indicators. The continental scale of the greening may suggest global processes as key drivers, such as carbon fertilization. That NDVI trends were more dynamic than RUE suggests that a large component of vegetation trends is driven by precipitation variability. Areas of negative trends were conspicuous by their minimalism. However, some patterns were apparent. In the southern Sahel and West Africa, declining NDVI and RUE overlapped with intensive population and agricultural regions. Dynamic trend reversals, in RUE and NDVI, located in Angola, Zambia and Tanzania, coincide with areas where a long-term trend of forest degradation and agricultural expansion has recently given way to increases in woody biomass. Meanwhile in southern Africa, monotonic increases in RUE with varying NDVI trend types may be indicative of shrub encroachment. However, all these processes are small-scale relative to the GIMMS NDVI data, and reconciling these conflicting drivers is not a trivial task. Our study highlights the importance of considering multiple options when undertaking trend analyses, as different inputs and methods can reveal divergent patterns.

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