Articles | Volume 12, issue 14
Research article
29 Jul 2015
Research article |  | 29 Jul 2015

Does EO NDVI seasonal metrics capture variations in species composition and biomass due to grazing in semi-arid grassland savannas?

J. L. Olsen, S. Miehe, P. Ceccato, and R. Fensholt

Abstract. Most regional scale studies of vegetation in the Sahel have been based on Earth observation (EO) imagery due to the limited number of sites providing continuous and long term in situ meteorological and vegetation measurements. From a long time series of coarse resolution normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data a greening of the Sahel since the 1980s has been identified. However, it is poorly understood how commonly applied remote sensing techniques reflect the influence of extensive grazing (and changes in grazing pressure) on natural rangeland vegetation. This paper analyses the time series of Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) NDVI metrics by comparing it with data from the Widou Thiengoly test site in northern Senegal. Field data include grazing intensity, end of season standing biomass (ESSB) and species composition from sizeable areas suitable for comparison with moderate – coarse resolution satellite imagery. It is shown that sampling plots excluded from grazing have a different species composition characterized by a longer growth cycle as compared to plots under controlled grazing or communal grazing. Also substantially higher ESSB is observed for grazing exclosures as compared to grazed areas, substantially exceeding the amount of biomass expected to be ingested by livestock for this area. The seasonal integrated NDVI (NDVI small integral; capturing only the signal inherent to the growing season recurrent vegetation), derived using absolute thresholds to estimate start and end of growing seasons, is identified as the metric most strongly related to ESSB for all grazing regimes. However plot-pixel comparisons demonstrate how the NDVI/ESSB relationship changes due to grazing-induced variation in annual plant species composition and the NDVI values for grazed plots are only slightly lower than the values observed for the ungrazed plots. Hence, average ESSB in ungrazed plots since 2000 was 0.93 t ha−1, compared to 0.51 t ha−1 for plots subjected to controlled grazing and 0.49 t ha−1 for communally grazed plots, but the average integrated NDVI values for the same period were 1.56, 1.49, and 1.45 for ungrazed, controlled and communal, respectively, i.e. a much smaller difference. This indicates that a grazing-induced development towards less ESSB and shorter-cycled annual plants with reduced ability to turn additional water in wet years into biomass is not adequately captured by seasonal NDVI metrics.

Short summary
Limitations of satellite-based normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) for monitoring vegetation trends are investigated using observations from the Widou Thiengoly test site in northern Senegal. NDVI do not reflect the large differences found in biomass production and species composition between grazed and ungrazed plots. This is problematic for vegetation trend analysis in the context of drastically increasing numbers of Sahelian livestock in recent decades.
Final-revised paper