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Comparison of vegetation phenology in the western USA determined from reflected GPS microwave signals and NDVI

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The normalized microwave reflection index (NMRI) is a measure of multipath scattering calculated daily from continuously operating GPS sites. GPS satellites transmit L-band microwave signals, and thus NMRI is sensitive to the amount of water in vegetation, not plant greenness or dry biomass. The sensing footprint is approximately 1000 m2, although reflections from a distance of hundreds of metres are important at some sites. NMRI exhibits clear seasonal variations that are linked to the changes in vegetation water content that accompany plant growth and senescence. In this paper, NMRI and the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) are compared for the period 2008–2012. NMRI data are derived from 184 GPS sites in the western USA. NDVI data are from the 250 m, 16-day pixel containing each GPS station. Amplitude of the annual growth cycle and correlation between NMRI and NDVI are estimated, with and without lags. Phenology metrics are calculated from both indices (i.e. the start of the growing season, timing of peak growth, and season length).

NMRI and NDVI are correlated at most sites, but the degree of correlation varies regionally. Correlation is lowest in California and coastal regions (R = 0.25), where NDVI increases earlier in the spring than NMRI. It is highest for mountain and prairie sites (R = 0.66 and 0.73, respectively). Allowing for a lag between NMRI and NDVI greatly increases the correlation. The lag that yields the greatest correlation is nearly 30 days for the California sites (R = 0.71 with lag), but only 10 days for mountain and prairie sites (R = 0.78 and 0.85 with lag). There are clear differences in phenology metrics extracted from NMRI and NDVI that are consistent with the correlation-lag analysis. Using NMRI, there is a later start to the season, later peak day of the year, and shorter season length. The greatest differences are in California where NDVI start of the season is nearly 60 days earlier than that calculated from NMRI. These data suggest that green-up precedes increases in vegetation water content, with the duration of offset varying regionally. This study is the first to compare GPS-derived microwave reflectance data with NDVI at multiple sites, and highlights both opportunities and limitations offered by NMRI data.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA 2: Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA

Publication date: May 3, 2014

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