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The Latent Dirichlet Allocation model applied to airborne LiDAR data: A case study on mapping forest degradation associated with fragmentation and fire in the Amazon region


LiDAR data are being increasingly used to provide a detailed characterization of the vertical profile of forests. This characterization enables the generation of new insights on the influence of environmental drivers and anthropogenic disturbances on forest structure as well as on how forest structure influences important ecosystem functions and services. Unfortunately, extracting information from LiDAR data in a way that enables the spatial visualization of forest structure, as well as its temporal changes, is challenging due to the high dimensionality of these data. We show how the Latent Dirichlet Allocation model applied to LiDAR data (LidarLDA) can be used to identify forest structural types and how the relative abundance of these forest types changes throughout the landscape. The code to fit this model is made available through the open-source r package LidarLDA in github. We illustrate the use of LidarLDA both with simulated data and data from a large-scale fire experiment in the Brazilian Amazon region. Using simulated data, we demonstrate that LidarLDA accurately identifies the number of forest types as well as their spatial distribution and absorptance probabilities. For the empirical data, we found that LidarLDA detects both landscape-level patterns in forest structure as well as the strong interacting effect of fire and forest fragmentation on forest structure based on the experimental fire plots. More specifically, LidarLDA reveals that proximity to forest edge exacerbates the impact of fires, and that burned forests remain structurally different from unburned areas for at least 7 years, even when burned only once. Importantly, LidarLDA generates insights on the 3D structure of forest that cannot be obtained using more standard approaches that just focus on top-of-the-canopy information (e.g. canopy height models based on LiDAR data). By enabling the mapping of forest structure and its temporal changes, we believe that LidarLDA will be of broad utility to the ecological research community.

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