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Quantification of the Ecological Resilience of Drylands Using Digital Remote Sensing

Robert A. Washington-Allen, Texas A&M University
R. D. Ramsey, Utah State University
Neil E. West, Utah State University
Brien E. Norton, Centre for the Management of Arid Environments

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Drylands cover 41% of the terrestrial surface and support > 36% of the world’s population. However, the magnitude of dryland degradation is unknown at regional and global spatial scales and at 15–30-yr temporal scales. Historical archives of > 30 yr of Landsat satellite imagery exist and allow local to global monitoring and assessment of a landscape’s natural resources in response to climatic events and human activities. Vegetation indices (VIs), i.e., proxies of vegetation characteristics such as phytomass, can be derived from the spectral properties of Landsat imagery. A dynamical systems analysis method called mean-variance analysis can be used to describe and quantify dynamic regimes of VI response to disturbance using characteristics of ecological resilience, particularly amplitude and malleability, from a change detection perspective. Amplitude is the magnitude of response of a VI to a disturbance; malleability is the degree of recovery of a resource after a disturbance. Spatially aggregate and spatially explicit (image) differencing are methods whereby a VI image or statistic from one time period is subtracted from a VI image or statistic from another time period. To illustrate this method, we used a time series of Landsat imagery from 1972 to 1987 to measure the response of vegetation communities that are managed by subsistence agropastoral communities to the severe 1982–1984 El Niño-induced drought on the Bolivian Altiplano. We found that the entire landscape had decreased vegetation cover, increased variance (diagnostic of a regime shift), and thus, increased susceptibility to soil erosion during the drought. The wet meadow vegetation cover class had the lowest amplitude and thus the most resilience relative to other vegetation cover classes. This response identified the wet meadow as a key resource, as well as a harbinger of climate change for agropastoral communities in areas where drought is an endemic stressor.

Key words

change detection; ecological resilience; El Niño Southern Oscillation; environmental monitoring, image differencing, Landsat, remote sensing
Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087