Vegetation indices do not capture forest cover variation in upland Siberian larch forests
Boreal forests are changing in response to climate, with potentially important feedbacks to regional and global climate through altered carbon cycle and albedo dynamics. These feedback processes will be affected by vegetation changes, and feedback strengths will largely rely on the spatial extent and timing of vegetation change. Satellite remote sensing is widely used to monitor vegetation dynamics, and vegetation indices (VIs) are frequently used to characterize spatial and temporal trends in vegetation productivity. In this study we combine field observations of larch forest cover across a 25 km2 upland landscape in northeastern Siberia with high-resolution satellite observations to determine how the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and the Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) are related to forest cover. Across 46 forest stands ranging from 0% to 90% larch canopy cover, we find either no change, or declines in NDVI and EVI derived from PlanetScope CubeSat and Landsat data with increasing forest cover. In conjunction with field observations of NDVI, these results indicate that understory vegetation likely exerts a strong influence on vegetation indices in these ecosystems. This suggests that positive decadal trends in NDVI in Siberian larch forests may correspond primarily to increases in understory productivity, or even to declines in forest cover. Consequently, positive NDVI trends may be associated with declines in terrestrial carbon storage and increases in albedo, rather than increases in carbon storage and decreases in albedo that are commonly assumed. Moreover, it is also likely that important ecological changes such as large changes in forest density or variable forest regrowth after fire are not captured by long-term NDVI trends.