Fine-scale perspectives on landscape phenology from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) photography

Published by Ecoss on

Forest phenology is a multi-scale phenomenon, arising from processes in leaves and trees, with effects on the ecology of plant communities and landscapes. Because phenology controls carbon and water cycles, which are commonly observed at the ecosystem scale (e.g. eddy flux measurements), it is important to characterize the relation between phenophase transition events at different spatial scales. We use aerial photography recorded from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to observe plant phenology over a large area (5.4 ha) and across diverse communities, with spatial and temporal resolution at the scale of individual tree crowns and their phenophase transition events (10 m spatial resolution, ∼5 day temporal resolution in spring, weekly in autumn). We validate UAV-derived phenophase transition dates through comparison with direct observations of tree phenology, PhenoCam image analysis, and satellite remote sensing. We then examine the biological correlates of spatial variance in phenology using a detailed species inventory and land cover classification. Our results show that species distribution is the dominant factor in spatial variability of ecosystem phenology. We also explore statistical relations governing the scaling of phenology from an organismic scale (10 m) to forested landscapes (1 km) by analyzing UAV photography alongside Landsat and MODIS data. From this analysis we find that spatial standard deviation in transition dates decreases linearly with the logarithm of increasing pixel size. We also find that fine-scale phenology aggregates to a coarser scale as the median and not the mean date in autumn, indicating coarser scale phenology is less sensitive to the tails of the distribution of sub-pixel transitions in the study area. Our study is the first to observe forest phenology in a spatially comprehensive, whole-ecosystem way, yet with fine enough spatial resolution to describe organism-level correlates and scaling phenomena.