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Quantifying Forest Structure Parameters and Their Changes from LiDAR Data and Satellite Imagery in the Sierra Nevada


Sierra Nevada forests have provided many economic benefits and ecological services to people in California, and the rest of the world. Dramatic changes are occurring in the forests due to climate warming and long-term fire suppression. Accurate mapping and monitoring are increasingly important to understand and manage the forests. Light Detection and Range (LiDAR), an active remote sensing technique, can penetrate the canopy and provide three-dimensional estimates of forest structures. LiDAR-based forest structural estimation has been demonstrated to be more efficient than field measurements and more accurate than those from passive remote sensing, like satellite imagery. Research in this dissertation aims at mapping and monitoring structural changes in Sierra Nevada forests by taking the advantages of LiDAR. We first evaluated LiDAR and fine resolution imagery-derived canopy cover estimates using different algorithms and data acquisition parameters. We suggested that LiDAR data obtained at 1 point/m2 with a scan angle smaller than 12°were sufficient for accurate canopy cover estimation in the Sierra Nevada mix-conifer forests. Fine resolution imagery is suitable for canopy cover estimation in forests with median density but may over or underestimate canopy cover in extremely coarse or dense forests. Then, a new LiDAR-based strategy was proposed to quantify tree growth and competition at individual tree and forest stand levels. Using this strategy, we illustrated how tree growth in two Sierra Nevada forests responded to tree competition, original tree sizes, forest density, and topography conditions; and identified that the tree volume growth was determined by the original tree sizes and competitions, but tree height and crown area growth were mostly influenced by water and space availability. Then, we calculated the forest biomass disturbance in a Sierra Nevada forest induced by fuel treatments using bi-temporal LiDAR data and field measurements. Using these results as references, we found that Landsat imagery-derived vegetation indices were suitable for quantifying canopy cover changes and biomass disturbances in forests with median density. Large uncertainties existed in applying the vegetation indices to quantify disturbance in extremely dense forests or forests only disturbed in the understory. Last, we assessed vegetation losses caused by the American Fire in 2013 using a new LiDAR point based method. This method was able to quantify fire-induced forest structure changes in basal area and leaf area index with lower uncertainties, compared with traditional LiDAR metrics and satellite imagery-derived vegetation indices. The studies presented in this dissertation can provide guidance for forest management in the Sierra Nevada, and potentially serve as useful tools for forest structural change monitoring in the rest of the world.

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