Revisiting the past: Replicability of a historic long-term vegetation dynamics assessment in the era of big data analytics


Open and analysis-ready data, as well as methodological and technical advancements have resulted in an unprecedented capability for observing the Earth’s land surfaces. Over 10 years ago, Landsat time series analyses were inevitably limited to a few expensive images from carefully selected acquisition dates. Yet, such a static selection may have introduced uncertainties when spatial or inter-annual variability in seasonal vegetation growth were large. As seminal pre-open-data-era papers are still heavily cited, variations of their workflows are still widely used, too. Thus, here we quantitatively assessed the level of agreement between an approach using carefully selected images and a state-of-the-art analysis that uses all available images. We reproduced a representative case study from the year 2003 that for the first time used annual Landsat time series to assess long-term vegetation dynamics in a semi-arid Mediterranean ecosystem in Crete, Greece. We replicated this assessment using all available data paired with a time series method based on land surface phenology metrics. Results differed fundamentally because the volatile timing of statically selected images relative to the phenological cycle introduced systematic uncertainty. We further applied lessons learned to arrive at a more nuanced and information-enriched vegetation dynamics description by decomposing vegetation cover into woody and herbaceous components, followed by a syndrome-based classification of change and trend parameters. This allowed for a more reliable interpretation of vegetation changes and even permitted us to disentangle certain land-use change processes with opposite trajectories in the vegetation components that were not observable when solely analyzing total vegetation cover. The long-term budget of net cover change revealed that vegetation cover of both components has increased at large and that this process was mainly driven by gradual processes. We conclude that study designs based on static image selection strategies should be critically evaluated in the light of current data availability, analytical capabilities, and with regards to the ecosystem under investigation. We recommend using all available data and taking advantage of phenology-based approaches that remove the selection bias and hence reduce uncertainties in results.

Remote Sensing