Relationship Between Remotely-sensed Vegetation Indices, Canopy Attributes and Plant Physiological Processes: What Vegetation Indices Can and Cannot Tell Us About the Landscape

Molecular Diversity Preservation International (M DP I)
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Sensors, 2008, 8 (4), pp. 2136 - 2160
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Vegetation indices (VIs) are among the oldest tools in remote sensing studies. Although many variations exist, most of them ratio the reflection of light in the red and NIR sections of the spectrum to separate the landscape into water, soil, and vegetation. Theoretical analyses and field studies have shown that VIs are near-linearly related to photosynthetically active radiation absorbed by a plant canopy, and therefore to light-dependent physiological processes, such as photosynthesis, occurring in the upper canopy. Practical studies have used time-series VIs to measure primary production and evapotranspiration, but these are limited in accuracy to that of the data used in ground truthing or calibrating the models used. VIs are also used to estimate a wide variety of other canopy attributes that are used in Soil-Vegetation-Atmosphere Transfer (SVAT), Surface Energy Balance (SEB), and Global Climate Models (GCM). These attributes include fractional vegetation cover, leaf area index, roughness lengths for turbulent transfer, emissivity and albedo. However, VIs often exhibit only moderate, non-linear relationships to these canopy attributes, compromising the accuracy of the models. We use case studies to illustrate the use and misuse of VIs, and argue for using VIs most simply as a measurement of canopy light absorption rather than as a surrogate for detailed features of canopy architecture. Used this way, VIs are compatible with "Big Leaf" SVAT and GCMs that assume that canopy carbon and moisture fluxes have the same relative response to the environment as any single leaf, simplifying the task of modeling complex landscapes.
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