Detecting drought impacts on forests in earth observation data

February 1, 2024
In Progress
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Extremely dry and hot summers in recent years have caused significant damage to forests in Switzerland and neighboring regions. Tree mortality and premature defoliation can be detected by satellite-based remote sensing as an anomalous “browning” of the vegetated land surface. To better detect and understand the drivers of these impacts, this project will develop a multivariate anomaly detection method for identifying and characterizing forest browning events in high-resolution Earth Observation (EO) data. We will use Sentinel-2 satellite imagery, climate reanalysis data, vegetation height and composition to detect spatio-temporal anomalies in vegetation greenness and relate them to different drivers, including droughts, late frost, deforestation, or storm damage. The project will address the challenges of identifying anomalies in large and noisy EO data, accounting for the heterogeneity of the land surface, phenology, vegetation types, and different browning drivers, including drought. A better understanding of the timing, location, magnitude, and drivers of forest browning will pave the way for future research, developing predictive methods in a near-range (weeks-months lead time) drought impact and/or forest fire forecasting context.



SDSC Team:
Michele Volpi

PI | Partners:

University of Bern, Geocomputation and Earth Observation Group:

  • Prof. Benjamin Stocker
  • Samantha Biegel
  • Nils Tinner

More info



In recent years, the forest damage caused by dry and hot summers has become a pressing concern for multiple stakeholders in Switzerland and neighboring regions. Understanding where and when climate extremes affect forest health and vitality is a crucial step for developing forecasting and early warning systems. Satellite-based remote sensing provides a powerful tool for monitoring forests, enabling the detection of anomalous “browning”, i.e. an unexpected decrease in plant growth or sudden reduction in plant productivity, of the vegetated land surface. However, working with large and noisy Earth Observation (EO) data presents challenges, so how can we accurately identify these anomalies? This project aims to implement a robust pipeline for detecting land surface browning anomalies using high-resolution EO time series data. By doing so, we can map and quantify the impacts of summer droughts on Swiss forests and identify drivers of browning events.

Proposed Approach / Solution

In the first step, suitable algorithms for greenness anomaly detection are identified and implemented. Surface greenness depends on the seasons, elevation, exposition, location, and the terrain, so these factors will have to be accounted for. The resulting anomaly detection model should scale to the high-resolution EO data covering the entirety of the Swiss forests. In the second step, the detected anomalies will be attributed to ecological drivers by relating them with respect to additional covariates, such as summer droughts, late frost, deforestation, and storm damage.


Developing capacity for drought impact monitoring and near-term forecasting (“early warning”, weeks-months lead time) has been declared a high priority by the Swiss Federal Council and a national program for its implementation has recently been launched as part of the National Centre for Climate Services (NCCS). Methodological developments achieved by this project will enable an open-access, robust, transparent, and updatable drought impact detection and quantification workflow and will serve to improve methods in drought impact and forest fire forecasting, achieved in future work.



Additional resources


  1. Brun, P., Psomas, A., Ginzler, C., Thuiller, W., Zappa, M., & Zimmermann, N. E. (2020). Large‐scale early‐wilting response of Central European forests to the 2018 extreme drought. Global change biology, 26(12), 7021-7035.
  2. Sturm, J., Santos, M. J., Schmid, B., & Damm, A. (2022). Satellite data reveal differential responses of Swiss forests to unprecedented 2018 drought. Global Change Biology, 28(9), 2956-2978.


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