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Topographic Controls on Southern California Ecosystem Function and Post-fire Recovery: a Satellite and Near-surface Remote Sensing Approach

Creative Commons 'BY-SA' version 4.0 license

Southern Californian wildfires can influence climate in a variety of ways, including changes in surface albedo, emission of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and the production of tropospheric ozone. Ecosystem post-fire recovery plays a key role in determining the strength, duration, and relative importance of these climate forcing agents. Southern California's ecosystems vary markedly with topography, creating sharp transitions with elevation, aspect, and slope. Little is known about the ways topography influences ecosystem properties and function, particularly in the context of post-fire recovery.

We combined images from the USGS satellite Landsat 5 with flux tower measurements to analyze pre- and post-fire albedo and carbon exchanged by Southern California's ecosystems in the Santa Ana Mountains. We reduced the sources of external variability in Landsat images using several correction methods for topographic and bidirectional effects. We used time series of corrected images to infer the Net Ecosystem Exchange and surface albedo, and calculated the radiative forcing due to CO2 emissions and albedo changes. We analyzed the patterns of recovery and radiative forcing on north- and south-facing slopes, stratified by vegetation classes including grassland, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and evergreen oak forest. We found that topography strongly influenced post-fire recovery and radiative forcing.

Field observations are often limited by the difficulty of collecting ground validation data. Current instrumentation networks do not provide adequate spatial resolution for landscape-level analysis. The deployment of consumer-market technology could reduce the cost of near-surface measurements, allowing the installation of finer-scale instrument networks. We tested the performance of the Microsoft Kinect sensor for measuring vegetation structure. We used Kinect to acquire 3D vegetation point clouds in the field, and used these data to compute plant height, crown diameter, and volume. We found good agreement between Kinect-derived and manual measurements.

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