Improving estimates of forest disturbance by combining observations from Landsat time series with U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis data
With earth's surface temperature and human population both on the rise a new emphasis has been placed on monitoring changes to forested ecosystems the world over. In the United States the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program monitors the forested land base with field data collected over a permanent network of sample plots. Although these plots are visited repeatedly through time there are large temporal gaps (e.g. 510 years) between remeasurements such that many forest canopy disturbances go undetected. In this paper we demonstrate how Landsat time series (LTS) can help improve FIA's capacity to estimate disturbance by 1.) incorporating a new, downward looking response variable which is more sensitive to picking up change and 2.) providing historical disturbance maps which can reduce the variance of design-based estimates via post-stratification. To develop the LTS response variable a trained analyst was used to manually interpret 449 forested FIA plots located in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah, USA. This involved recording cause and timing of disturbances based on evidence gathered from a 26-year annual stack of Landsat images and an 18-year, periodically spaced set of high resolution (~1 m) aerial photographs (e.g. National Aerial Image Program, NAIP and Google Earth). In general, the Landsat data captured major disturbances (e.g. harvests, fires) while the air photos allowed more detailed estimates of the number of trees impacted by recent insect outbreaks. Comparing the LTS and FIA field observations, we found that overall agreement was 73%, although when only disturbed plots were considered agreement dropped to 40%. Using the non-parametric Mann-Whitney test, we compared distributions of live and disturbed tree size (height and DBH) and found that when LTS and FIA both found nonstand clearing disturbance the median disturbed tree size was significantly larger than undisturbed trees, whereas no significant difference was found on plots where only FIA detected disturbance. This suggests that LTS interpretation and FIA field crews both detect upper canopy disturbances while FIA crews alone add disturbances occurring at or below canopy level. The analysis also showed that plots with only LTS disturbance had a significantly greater median number of years since last FIA measurement (6 years) than plots with both FIA and LTS disturbances (2.5 years), indicating that LTS improved detection on plots which had not been field sampled for several years.