Modeling sub-boreal forest canopy bulk density in Minnesota, USA, using synthetic aperture radar and optical satellite sensor data

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Olbrich, Jacob
Johnson, Patricia
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Wolter, Peter
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Natural Resource Ecology and Management
The Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management is dedicated to the understanding, effective management, and sustainable use of our renewable natural resources through the land-grant missions of teaching, research, and extension.
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Background: National estimates of canopy bulk density (CBD; kg m−3) for fire behavior modeling are generated and supported by the LANDFIRE program. However, locally derived estimates of CBD at finer scales are preferred over national estimates if they exist, as the absolute accuracy of the LANDFIRE CBD product is low and varies regionally. Active sensors (e.g., lidar or radar) are better suited for this task, as passive sensors are ill equipped to detect differences among key vertical fuel structures, such as coniferous surface fuels (≤2 m high) and canopy fuels above this threshold—a key categorical fuel distinction in fire behavior modeling. However, previous efforts to map CBD using lidar sensor data in the Superior National Forest (SNF) of Minnesota, USA, yielded substandard results. Therefore, we use a combination of dormant-season synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and optical satellite sensor data to (1) expand detectability of coniferous fuels among mixed forest canopies to improve the accuracy of CBD modeling and (2) better understand the influence of surface fuels in this regard. Response variables included FuelCalc output and indirect estimates of maximum burnable fuel based on canopy gap fraction (CGF) measured at ground level and 2 m above ground level. Results: SAR variables were important predictors of CBD and total fuel density (TFD) in all independent model calibrations with ground data, in which we define TFD as the sum of CBD and primarily live coniferous surface fuel density (SFD) 0 to 2 m above ground. Exploratory estimates of TFD appeared biased to the presence of saplingstage conifer fuel on measures of CGF at the ground level. Thus, modeling efforts to calibrate SFD with satellite sensor data failed. Both CGF-based and FuelCalc-based field estimates of CBD yielded close unity with satellitecalibrated estimates, although substantial differences in data distributions existed. Estimates of CBD from the widest CGF zenith angle range (0 to 38°) correlated best with FuelCalc-based CBD estimates, while both resulted in maximum biomass values that exceeded those considered typical for the SNF. Model results from the narrowest zenith angle range (0 to 7°) produced estimates of CBD that were more in line with values considered typical. LANDFIRE’s estimates of CBD were weakly, but significantly (P = 0.05), correlated to both narrow- and wide-angle CGF-based estimates of CBD, but not with FuelCalc-based estimates. Conclusions: The combined use of field estimates of CBD, based on indirect measures of CGF according to Keane et al. (Canadian Journal of Forest Research 35:724–739, 2005), with SAR and optical satellite sensor data demonstrates the potential of this method for mapping CBD in the Upper Midwest, USA. Results suggested that the presence of live, coniferous surface fuels neither confounds remote detection nor precludes mapping of CBD in this region using SAR satellite sensor data, as C- and L-band idiosyncrasies likely limit the visibility of these smaller understory fuels from space. Nevertheless, research using direct measures of burnable SFD for calibrations with SAR satellite sensor data should be conducted to more definitively answer this remote detection question, as we suspect substantial bias among measures of CGF from ground level when estimating SFD as the difference between TFD and CBD.
This article is published as Wolter, P.T., Olbrich, J.J. & Johnson, P.J. Modeling sub-boreal forest canopy bulk density in Minnesota, USA, using synthetic aperture radar and optical satellite sensor data. fire ecol 17, 26 (2021). Works produced by employees of the U.S. Government as part of their official duties are not copyrighted within the U.S. The content of this document is not copyrighted.