Earth Day Connections: NASA Investigates Vegetation

Apr 19, 2021

From the vantage point of space, NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites joins with those of partner interagency and international agencies to investigate and illuminate connections between ecosystems that are continents apart, or right next door. With a global perspective, scientists can observe how factors like deforestation, climate change and disasters impact forests and other plant life – while also studying how changes in vegetation impact air quality, waterways and the climate. Vegetation is the primary energy source for nearly all life on Earth, so monitoring it and forecasting how it could be impacted by climate change is key.

In the Amazon, NASA Earth scientists monitor forests and bring these data into the hands of local decision-makers. NASA data provides information about the clearing of trees for agriculture and ranching as well as the impacts of drought on tree mortality. People cut down forests and then ignite the piles of trees and other vegetation, leading to wildfires, which can be detected by instruments including the thermal imager on the Suomi NPP satellite. In 2020, these sensors detected where 1.4 million fires took place. The fires generate smoke that can drift over the continent and be seen from space.

With instruments that collect images of Earth’s surface, researchers can also track the scale of those fires and forest clearings over the years, and even over decades. With the joint NASA/U.S. Geological Survey’s Landsat mission, which launched its first satellite in 1972 and is scheduled to launch Landsat 9 in September 2021, scientists can track changing patterns of deforestation that tells them how Amazonian agricultural practices have changed, from small family holdings to massive ranching operations.

The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, nearly as big as the continental United States. But every year, less of that forest is still standing. Today’s deforestation across the Amazon frontier is tractors and bulldozers clearing large swaths to make room for industrial-scale cattle ranching and crops. Landsat satellite data is used to map land cover in Brazil with a historical perspective, going back to 1984.Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight CenterDownload this video in HD formats from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Tracking Plant Health from Space

Satellites can detect how “green” an area is – showing the health of plants that are growing in a particular site. While fires, deforestation and drought lead to the tropical Amazon being less green, warming temperatures in the Arctic lead to tundra and boreal regions becoming greener. Using 87,000 Landsat images spanning nearly three decades, scientists found that a third of the land cover of Canada and Alaska looked different in 2012 as compared to 1985. With warmer temperatures, and longer growing seasons, shrubs become denser on grassy tundras, transforming what they looked like from space.

Since plants take up carbon dioxide from the air as they undergo photosynthesis to make food, it may seem that having a greener Arctic would a result in less of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. However, a recent study using satellite data and computer models found that any increased carbon uptake in the Arctic is offset by a decline in the tropics. There, warmer global temperatures have led to a drier atmosphere. That means less rainfall and more drought in places like the Amazon, which leads to a drop in tree growth and increases in tree mortality – and less carbon taken from the atmosphere. Soon, water availability could limit the amount of greening in the Arctic as well, the scientists found. As forests expand or are cut back, researchers use data from instruments including MODIS and satellites like Landsat to measure their extent and health.

A new suite of NASA instruments in space also measure the health of forests. The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation – or GEDI – instrument aboard the International Space Station uses lasers to measure the height of trees, allowing researchers to investigate how ecosystems are changing and how the carbon and water cycles are shifting in a warming climate. The Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite 2, or ICESat-2, uses a similar technique to measure heights, and can reach higher latitudes to see changes in the Arctic biomes as well. And the Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station, or ECOSTRESS, measures the temperature of plants, to help determine their water consumption and health.

From Forests to Farms

While climate change impacts the growth and health of vegetation, naturally occurring weather patterns have an impact as well. Scientists with NASA Harvest are looking into the connections between El Niño/La Niña weather patterns, and the farming conditions and crop yields in eastern and southern Africa. During El Niño years, winds and currents in the equatorial Pacific Ocean cause water to pile up against South America, impacting weather patterns around the globe – even in Africa. Researchers found that southern Africa tends to have decreased crop yields during El Niño phases, while eastern Africa sees increased crop yields in those years – knowing these relationships can help farmers and policy makers prepare for a given season.

NASA satellites and science also help farmers in the United States monitor and track their crops. Having more information about rainfall, plant health and other data gives farmers information they use to deal with the extreme weather events that are increasing due to climate change, as well as shifting planting zones and other effects like early freezes and heavier spring rains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates and tracks crop production using farmer surveys and ground observations, with a big-picture assist from Landsat data, NASA computer models and other Earth science resources. They also use MODIS instruments to monitor daily vegetation health – all to help determine what the crop yield will be, and which areas could be facing problems.

These same satellites can also help scientists track the unwanted products of some agricultural fields, including runoff that flows into waterways. Farms, forests, tundra – all these vegetated ecosystems connect to other spheres of our home planet.

By Kate Ramsayer
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Last Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Editor: Kate Ramsayer

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Ron Long
April 20, 2021 3:47 am

An interesting review of Landsat history ruined by injecting CAGW nonsense. Landsat has very wide band-width and they appear to be using either the color green or algorithim processing to track “deforestation”. The early Landsats, 1-5, had 30 meter pixels (120 m for thermal) and wide detector band-with. During a well-funded research effort we found that the only accurate way to utilize Landsat data for mineral exploration was through Supervised Classification and the Spectral Angle Mapper tool in the program ENVI. This technique requires field time as the training pixels need to be viewed directly to determine whether or not they are useful. For instance, if you utilize training pixels from an already drilled gold resource area your process will more likely find other roads and not the target alteration. I previously commented on WATTS about flying over the Amazon Basin at night and being awed by the large areas totally devoid of light. So they are cultivating some of the area? Developing agriculture in the USA is great, but don’t develop any of the Amazon?

Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  Ron Long
April 20, 2021 4:16 am

“Developing agriculture in the USA is great, but don’t develop any of the Amazon?”
The Brazilians know that virtually all of European and USA original forests have been cut and now those nations are berating Brazil for cutting trees.

Reply to  Joseph Zorzin
April 20, 2021 7:20 am

The evidence (from historical drawings and photographs, and simple observation) is that the USA is far more heavily forested today than it ever has been – ‘thanks’ to improvements in agriculture productivity and fire suppression ( including restrictions on logging).

As a result, we are approaching the historical era of uncontrollable wildfires — apparently preferable to well-managed forests in the current irrational political climate.

Reply to  BobC
April 20, 2021 7:38 pm

The forests are no loner being cut for heating and cooking.

Bob Hoye
Reply to  Joseph Zorzin
April 20, 2021 7:49 am

The “Great Plains” both in Canada and the U.S. were NOT caused by clear cut logging.
Or slash and burn.
No effing trees which defines the prairies.
Except in drainage areas.

Reply to  Bob Hoye
April 20, 2021 8:50 am

But they were maintained by fire with fire return intervals of one to ten years for many grassland environments. Grass loves fire.

Reply to  BCBill
April 20, 2021 9:07 am

They’re maintained by dry conditions. I live on the prairies, and the only places you find trees are in towns where people plant and water them, and in coulees and along creeks and rivers where moisture collects. Trees need far more water than grass or grain crops.

Reply to  Dan
April 20, 2021 12:21 pm

Grasses put out their own chelator molecules for maximizing utilization of metal ions (ex: iron, zinc, copper, cobalt) & trees do not do this. It allows grasses to flourish.

True, plant roots absorb single metal ions, but grass chelating them in the soil allows maximum utilization. Anywhere from 1 to 3 complexing molecules can chelate with a single metal ion.

In most cases iron is the most stable chelate; followed in descending order by copper, nickel, aluminum, zinc, cobalt, manganese & then even calcium (Ca++). Grasses thrive (& green), in part, due to their exceptional chelating of iron ( iron is integral to the initial ATP energy production steps; ex: an eColi dividing every 20 minutes uses 50 billion ATP).

Grass roots take back up the chelated molecule along with it’s held iron. Once inside the root the chelate complex bonds to a cytoplasm plasma-lemma (portal). There the iron Fe+++ (ferric state of iron) is “reduced” to Fe++ iron ( ferrous state of iron) & that Fe++ iron, because it is the only compatibly charged iron, goes into the cell.

At that point the chelate is left behind (outside a cell) by the iron & subject to different processes. Ultimately the plant will degrade a chelator molecule; but in some dynamics there is internal copper, zinc &/or manganese which the chelator no longer used to bring in iron can subsequently chelate. And this is a beneficial second use of the grass chelator in controlling potentially rogue metal ions that the local soil can contain in challenging levels (ex: excess manganese is not ideal for plants).

Reply to  Dan
April 21, 2021 1:41 am

No. ( Crops evapo-transpire at about the same rate as conifer forests. The soil under some conifer forest types is extremely dry due to canopy interception of water and prolonged seasons of transpiration. The ability of dry tolerant conifers such as Interior Douglas-fir to function in super dry conditions is one of their greatest competitive advantages. Where drought tolerant conifers establish in a grassland they will gradually spread and take over increasing area. You can see this happening in numerous locations across the prairies. However, young trees especially do not tolerate fire. There are areas too dry for trees to grow but sometimes if trees were established the very same areas might no longer be too dry (vegetative cover changes the environment, see Cedars of Lebanon).

Reply to  BCBill
April 23, 2021 10:19 am

Pinyon pines are examples of extreme drought tolerance of conifers where even grasses cannot grow.

Ron Long
Reply to  Bob Hoye
April 20, 2021 9:15 am

Bob, I walked through a preserved patch of Tall Prairie Grass and it was totally amazing. Some of the grass as much as 7 feet tall. This was common “where the buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day”.

Reply to  Ron Long
April 20, 2021 12:33 pm

7 feet tall grass means lots of cells & I’ll expand on my comment how grasses access iron by exuding their own chelstor.

Reply to  gringojay
April 20, 2021 1:12 pm

pardon my formatting – kind of distracted … hope image magnifies legibly

Alan Robertson
Reply to  Ron Long
April 20, 2021 12:59 pm

I was born and raised on the Tall Grass Prairie, in Osage Co., OK.
When my Son was about 4- 5 yrs. old, we had a good year for the grass and I took him for his first foray into the tall grass, with seed heads soaring above my head.
I hadn’t led him 10 feet, when I heard his panicked cries behind me.
He had tripped and fallen in the tangle, but the grass held him above the ground and had him wrapped up, helpless.
Cattle completely disappear in the grass, just a few feet away, in a good year.

Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  Bob Hoye
April 20, 2021 10:56 am

I’ve read that there were SOME trees in the prarie- until the natives started fire- either with or without trying. That- it was more of a savanah. This is back when the megafauna were around and the early humans from NE Asia. Natural fires were common- but they became more common with human present. This is vague in my mind- no doubt somebody here knows the subject. I vaguely seem to recall reading this in one my forestry textbooks in the ’60s. One way to show that there must have been trees is because you can plant them and they might survive if its the right species. So if trees can survive now- there must have been some in the past and not just in the drainages.

Timo, not that one
Reply to  Bob Hoye
April 20, 2021 11:42 am

“The “Great Plains” both in Canada and the U.S. were NOT caused by clear cut logging.
Or slash and burn.”

You don’t know that.
The first Europeans in the Americas noted that the aboriginal people managed land with regular burning, before their populations were decimated by European diseases.
In the Amazon basin, there are man made earthworks, now hidden by rainforests. We don’t even know if the rainforests weren’t burned by humans in the past, only to regrow.

Alan Robertson
Reply to  Timo, not that one
April 20, 2021 1:25 pm

Just West of Pawhuska, OK, there’s a place called “Timber Hill”, which marks the demarcation between trees to the East and Tall Grass Prairie, to the West. On either side of that point (it isn’t a straight line marking timber/prairie,) the rocks and the soils are different.

While it’s true that plants will modify the nature of the soils in which they grow, the soil’s mineral composition plays a more important role in the formation of prairie ecosystems, than the efforts of man.

There is a very large tract of forested land SE of Pawhuska, which was sprayed and deforested, 60+ years ago, in an effort to turn the area to prairie and grazing. Today, it has returned to its original Oak/Hickory forest condition. The only difference between that forest and the forests which stretch Eastward to the Atlantic, is the absence of the 400+ year old Oaks and such.

To the West, Tall Grass Prairie, then Mixed Grass prairie, then High Plains, then Desert.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Ron Long
April 20, 2021 8:50 am

Almost certainly using the red and green TM bands to calculate the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, or some similar derivative.

April 20, 2021 4:10 am

Can’t they ditch the useless models for once?

Surely even they realise what junk they are?

Mark Thomas
April 20, 2021 4:14 am

Can everyone use this to explore and investigate any part of the world?
Is it possible to take the time series maps showing deforestation and add temperature, rainfall, humidity changes?

Bryan A
April 20, 2021 5:09 am

In the article it states that Warmer Global Temperatures have led to a “Drier Atmosphere” negatively affecting the rainforest greening.
I was under the impression that increasing temperatures meant increased atmospheric moisture and increased the potential for extreme rain events.
I would have thought that, like Kilimanjaro, deforestation would lead to the decrease in Forest induced Evapotranspiration and thereby decrease Rainforest Greening.
Not increasing temperatures but clearing for Palm Oil Plantations.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bryan A
Tom in Toronto
Reply to  Bryan A
April 20, 2021 5:47 am

As we’ve learned from CAGW, “increasing temperatures” can cause anything from droughts to wildfires to rainfall and even decreasing temperatures.

Steve Case
Reply to  Bryan A
April 20, 2021 8:42 am

“…Warmer Global Temperatures have led to a “Drier Atmosphere” negatively affecting the rainforest greening.
I was under the impression that increasing temperatures meant increased atmospheric moisture …”

Good catch, it went right by me. Duh!

April 20, 2021 5:45 am

No mention of the greening of the Sahara Desert?

Reply to  Kpar
April 20, 2021 6:16 am

The greening of the Sahara is counter-factual for their model of reality- in group speak: you won’t get funding if you don’t follow the correct line of inquiry!

April 20, 2021 6:44 am

Really ? there is an Amazonian drought ? Thought it was just normal rainfall variation.

Ron Long
April 20, 2021 6:45 am

The Amazon Basin, a large area of jungle, a lot of it triple canopy, was once described as “the lungs of the planet”. Have you ever walked along the ground in a real jungle? It stinks. This stink is due to rotting of vegetation, which is mostly an oxidation process, in the perfect environment: lots of foliage dying/falling, lots of rain, and higher temperatures. So, what’s the net balance calculation for oxygen generation versus oxygen consumption: is the Amazon Basin the lungs or some other body area?

April 20, 2021 7:08 am

So NASA thinks greening is bad? Okey dokey, then.

April 20, 2021 7:52 am

Hmm… al this time I thought the SUN was the primary energy source for almost all life on Earth. I will concede that plants maybe the primary energy converters that convert solar energy into stored chemical energy for other consumers, bur the other “consumers” use solar energy directly for heating as well.

Reply to  Zoe Phin
April 20, 2021 10:03 am

Stop it Zoe! giving all of your sources AND your code so someone could use it against you? For Shame!!

You will NEVER make a true “Climate Scientist”.

Tim Gorman
April 20, 2021 8:15 am

 While fires, deforestation and drought lead to the tropical Amazon being less green”

None of this makes any sense. Cutting down the Amazon jungle to raise cattle on grasslands and raising crops will cause desertification of the Amazon? Those grasslands and crops are *also* green and are CO2 sinks, it’s not just trees that perform this function.

I always wonder when I read crap like this just how often the authors actually get out into nature and experience it directly. It’s pretty difficult to give any credence at all to those espousing the opinion that “trees are good, grass and crops are bad”.

Reply to  Tim Gorman
April 20, 2021 9:07 am

Not getting away often enough from the idiot screen is a huge problem in research today. Modelling is cheap, clean, dry and devoid of mosquitos (though other bugs may present problems) and young ecologists often have so little field experience that they lack the foundation that helps to separate plausible from the fantastical imaginings of the computer bound.

Reply to  Tim Gorman
April 20, 2021 9:45 am

I’ve been convinced for a long time that most of these “researchers” have NO real experience with the real world, especially anything outside their campuses and cities.

Gary Pearse
April 20, 2021 11:16 am

Not one mention of the huge contribution rising CO2 makes to the expansion of forests and all plant growth including burgeoning global harvests. Shame on NASA. How low it has sunk. How anti-science.This shows that it doesnt matter what instrumental wonders they launch, they will puck and choose only the data that has utility to the Marxbrothers.

Big poker players’ tell: 90% of the greening from CO2 is in the tropical and temperate zones where “warming” climate isnt a necessary precondition for (it’swarm enough – it is largely the effect of elevated CO2 fertilization, enhancement of a plants economical use of water and creating a more favorable climate with ground cover). They chose to floodlight greening in the arctic so that they could ‘blame’ greening all on temperature. Disgusting!

Reply to  Gary Pearse
April 26, 2021 2:07 pm

A comment on presenting reality. The earth is greening and this includes dry areas like the sub-Sahara Sahel region (contrary to the old lie about increasing desertification). The satelites pictures do in fact underestimate the greening when the scientists ignore the increased grazing pressure by the expanding herds of grazing ruminants kept by the rapidly increasing nomad populations in Sahel. The nomads live to a large degree on what their herds of grazers produce. The human populations have increased by a factor of ca 3 in the ca satelite chlorophyl registration period of 1970-2000.This hints to the increased grazing pressure (more cows, sheep and goats needed to survive) and hence how the gain from more CO2 in the atmosphere might be downplayed.
The case might be representative for other areas on earth too. Rates of biological processes have to be accounted for., see table 2.1 page 24/86 in the pdf.

Short table
Population increase (millions), G5 countries of the sub-Sahara Sahel region          
1950 1970 2000 2030*
Mali 4,6 6 11,3 15,4
Mauretania 0,7 1,1 2,6 6
Niger 2,5 4,4 10,9 30,8
Chad 2,4 3,7 8,2 11,2
Burkina Faso 4,2 5,8 12,3 16,5
* prognosis        


April 20, 2021 11:22 am

This comes across as a PR piece that is attempted to justify NOAA’s excessive budget while interjecting some climate alarmism.

Look at us we are accomplishing our objective of baffling the uninformed farmers with our propaganda so please keep funding us. Thank.

April 20, 2021 4:49 pm

So Earth Day is Thursday. Great! To be quite chilly for the ticks and chiggers so I’m gonna cut down several trees that I just don’t want and spray a load of Round-up where I don’t want the vegetation! Glad I can participate!

zack aa
April 20, 2021 5:34 pm

Scientists viewed older tundra images on a 1985 RCA Colortrak 3000 as it’s resolution was of equally poor quality as the sensors in use at the time. The lack of any visible shrubs is proof they didn’t exist in a pre-AGW world.

Bill Everett
Reply to  zack aa
April 23, 2021 4:32 pm

NASA published a paper on the internet entitled “Satellite Detects Human Contribution To Atmospheric CO2” which included maps of various parts of the World showing the locations of human induced CO2. The map of the United States showed about 95 percent of that CO2 in the Eastern half of the United States and practically none in the Western half. Major population areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Dallas-Fort Worth showed no CO2 contribution. The heaviest area of so-called human CO2 contribution appeared along the heavily wooded Appalachian Mountain chain from Georgia to Maine. In other areas of the East the CO2 location correlated with the forests and woods not the cities. The accompanying text contained no mention of this apparent contradiction to their claim. The demarcation line between the East with CO2 and the West without CO2 closely paralleled the line on the climate map of the United States in the World Atlas which divides the cold-moist Northeast and warm rainy Southeast from the semi-arid and desert West.

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