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Mapping wildfire and clearcut harvest disturbances in boreal forests with Landsat time series data

Formally Refereed
Authors: Todd Schroeder, Michael A. Wulder, Sean P. Healey, Gretchen G. Moisen
Year: 2011
Type: Scientific Journal
Station: Rocky Mountain Research Station
Source: Remote Sensing of Environment. 115: 1421-1433.


Information regarding the extent, timing andmagnitude of forest disturbance are key inputs required for accurate estimation of the terrestrial carbon balance. Equally important for studying carbon dynamics is the ability to distinguish the cause or type of forest disturbance occurring on the landscape. Wildfire and timber harvesting are common disturbances occurring in boreal forests, with each having differing carbon consequences (i.e., biomass removed, recovery rates). Development of methods to not only map, but distinguish these types of disturbance with satellite data will depend upon an improved understanding of their distinctive spectral properties. In this study, we mapped wildfires and clearcut harvests occurring in a Landsat time series (LTS) acquired in the boreal plains of Saskatchewan, Canada. This highly accurate reference map (kappa=0.91) depicting the year and cause of historical disturbances was used to determine the spectral and temporal properties needed to accurately classify fire and clearcut disturbances. The results showed that spectral data fromthe short-wave infrared (SWIR; e.g., Landsat band 5) portion of the electromagnetic spectrumwas most effective at separating fires and clearcut harvests possibly due to differences in structure, shadowing, and amounts of exposed soil left behind by the two disturbance types. Although SWIR data acquired 1 year after disturbance enabled the most accurate discrimination of fires and clearcut harvests, good separation (e.g., kappa>0.80) could still be achieved with Landsat band 5 and other SWIR-based indices 3 to 4 years after disturbance. Conversely, minimal disturbance responses in near infrared-based indices associated with green leaf area (e.g., NDVI) led to unreliably low classification accuracies regardless of time since disturbance. In addition to exploring the spectral and temporal manifestation of forest disturbance types, we also demonstrate how Landsat changemapswhich attribute cause of disturbance can be used to help elucidate the social, ecological and carbon consequences associated with wildfire and clearcut harvesting in Canadian boreal forests.


forest disturbance mapping, wildfire, clearcut harvest, Landsat time series, image classification, monitoring


Schroeder, Todd A.; Wulder, Michael A.; Healey, Sean P.; Moisen, Gretchen G. 2011. Mapping wildfire and clearcut harvest disturbances in boreal forests with Landsat time series data. Remote Sensing of Environment. 115: 1421-1433.