Spatial patterns and temporal dynamics in savanna vegetation phenology across the north australian tropical transect

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Journal Article
Remote Sensing of Environment, 2013, 139 pp. 97 - 115
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The phenology of a landscape is a key parameter in climate and biogeochemical cycle models and its correct representation is central to the accurate simulation of carbon, water and energy exchange between the land surface and the atmosphere. Whereas biogeographic phenological patterns and shifts have received much attention in temperate ecosystems, much less is known about the phenology of savannas, despite their sensitivity to climate change and their coverage of approximately one eighth of the global land surface. Savannas are complex assemblages of multiple tree, shrub, and grass vegetation strata, each with variable phenological responses to seasonal climate and environmental variables. The objectives of this study were to investigate biogeographical and inter-annual patterns in savanna phenology along a 1100. km ecological rainfall gradient, known as North Australian Tropical Transect (NATT), encompassing humid coastal Eucalyptus forests and woodlands to xeric inland Acacia woodlands and shrublands. Key phenology transition dates (start, peak, end, and length of seasonal greening periods) were extracted from 13. years (2000-2012) of Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) data using Singular Spectrum Analysis (SSA).Two distinct biogeographical patterns in phenology were observed, controlled by different climate systems. The northern (mesic) portion of the transect, from 12°S, to around 17.7°S, was influenced by the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) seasonal monsoon climate system, resulting in strong latitudinal shifts in phenology patterns, primarily associated with the functional response of the C4 grass layer. Both the start and end of the greening (enhanced vegetation activity) season occurred earlier in the northern tropical savannas and were progressively delayed towards the southern limit of the Eucalyptus-dominated savannas resulting in relatively stable length of greening periods. In contrast, the southern xeric portion of the study area was largely decoupled from monsoonal influences and exhibited highly variable phenology that was largely rainfall pulse driven. The seasonal greening periods were generally shorter but fluctuated widely from no detectable greening during extended drought periods to length of greening seasons that exceeded those in the more mesic northern savannas in some wet years. This was in part due to more extreme rainfall variability, as well as a C3/C4 grass-forb understory that provided the potential for extended greening periods. Phenology of Acacia dominated savannas displayed a much greater overall responsiveness to hydroclimatic variability. The variance in annual precipitation alone could explain 80% of the variances in the length of greening season across the major vegetation groups. We also found that increased variation in the timing of phenology was coupled with a decreasing tree-grass ratio. We further compared the satellite-based phenology results with tower-derived measures of Gross Ecosystem Production (GEP) fluxes at three sites over two contrasting savanna classes. We found good convergence between MODIS EVI and tower GEP, thereby confirming the potential to link these two independent data sources to better understand savanna ecosystem functioning. © 2013 Elsevier Inc.
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