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Revisiting the coupling between NDVI trends and cropland changes in the Sahel drylands: a case study in western Niger

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Xiaoye Tong, Martin Stefan Brandt, Pierre Hiernaux, Stefanie M. Herrmann, Feng Tian, Alexander Prishchepov, Rasmus Fensholt

The impact of human activities via land use/cover changes on NDVI trends is critical for an improved understanding of satellite-observed changes in vegetation productivity in drylands. The dominance of positive NDVI trends in the Sahel, the so-called re-greening, is sometimes interpreted as a combined effect of an increase in rainfall and cropland expansion or agricultural intensification. Yet, the impact of changes in land use has yet to be thoroughly tested and supported by empirical evidence. At present, no studies have considered the importance of the different seasonal NDVI signals of cropped and fallowed fields when interpreting NDVI trends, as both field types are commonly merged into a single ‘cropland’ class. We make use of the distinctly different phenology of cropped and fallowed fields and use seasonal NDVI curves to separate these two field types. A fuzzy classifier is applied to quantify cropped and fallowed areas in a case study region in the southern Sahel (Fakara, Niger) on a yearly basis between 2000 and 2014. We find that fallowed fields have a consistently higher NDVI than unmanured cropped fields and by using two seasonal NDVI metrics (the amplitude and the decreasing rate) derived from the MODIS time series, a clear separation between classes of fields is achieved (r = 0.77). The fuzzy classifier can compute the percentage of a pixel (250 m) under active cultivation, thereby alleviating the problem of small field sizes in the region. We find a predominant decrease in NDVI over the period of analysis associated with an increased area of cropped fields at the expense of fallowed fields. Our findings couple cropping abandonment (more frequent fallow years) with positive NDVI trends and an increase in the percentage of the cropped area (fallow period shortening) with negative trends. These findings profoundly impact our understanding of greening and browning trends in agrarian Sahelian drylands and in other drylands of developing countries characterized by limited use of fertilizers.

Original languageEnglish
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Pages (from-to)286-296
Number of pages11
StatePublished - 2017

    Research areas

  • Cropland, Drylands, Fallowed fields, NDVI trends, Niger, Phenology, Sahel

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