Satellite Image-based Estimates of Snow Water Equivalence in Restored Ponderosa Pine Forests in Northern Arizona
Abstract:The U.S. Forest Service plans to conduct forest restoration treatments through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) on hundreds of thousands of acres of ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona over the next 20 years with the goals of reducing wildfire hazard and improving forest health. The 4FRI’s key objective is to thin and burn the forests to create within-stand openings that “promote snowpack accumulation and retention which benefit groundwater recharge and watershed processes at the fine (1 to 10 acres) scale”. However, little is known about how these openings created by restoration treatments affect snow water equivalence (SWE) and soil moisture, which are key parts of the water balance that greatly influence water availability for healthy trees and for downstream water users in the Sonoran Desert.
We have examined forest canopy cover by calculating a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a key indicator of green vegetation cover, using Landsat satellite data. We have then compared NDVI between treatments at our study sites in northern Arizona and have found statistically significant differences in tree canopy cover between treatments. The control units have significantly greater forest canopy cover than the treated units. The thinned units also have significantly greater tree canopy cover than the thin-and-burn units. Winter season Landsat images have also been analyzed to calculate Normalized Difference Snow Index (NDSI), a key indicator of snow water equivalence and snow accumulation at the treated and untreated forests. The NDSI values from these dates are examined to determine if snow accumulation and snow water equivalence vary between treatments at our study sites. NDSI is significantly greater at the treated units than the control units. In particular, the thinned forest units have significantly greater snow cover than the control units. Our results indicate that forest restoration treatments result in increased snow pack accumulation and this increase can be efficiently estimated at a landscape scale using satellite data.