A landscape approach for detecting and evaluating change in a semi-arid environment

William G. Kepner, Christopher J. Watts, Curtis M. Edmonds, John K. Maingi, Stuart E. Marsh, Gonzalo Luna

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

99 Scopus citations


Vegetation change in the American West has been a subject of concern throughout the twentieth century. Although many of the changes have been recorded qualitatively through the use of comparative photography and historical reports, little quantitative information has been available on the regional or watershed scale. It is currently possible to measure change over large areas and determine trends in ecological and hydrological condition using advanced space-based technologies. Specifically, this process is being tested in a community-based watershed in southeast Arizona and northeast Sonora, Mexico using a system of landscape pattern measurements derived from satellite remote sensing, spatial statistics, process modeling, and geographic information systems technology. These technologies provide the basis for developing landscape composition and pattern indicators as sensitive measures of large-scale environmental change and thus may provide an effective and economical method for evaluating watershed condition related to disturbance from human and natural stresses. The project utilizes the database from the North American Landscape Characterization (NALC) project which incorporates triplicate Landsat Multi-Spectral Scanner (MSS) imagery from the early 1970s, mid 1980s, and the 1990s. Landscape composition and pattern metrics have been generated from digital land cover maps derived from the NALC images and compared across a nearly 20-year period. Results about changes in land cover for the study period indicate that extensive, highly connected grassland and desertscrub areas are the most vulnerable ecosystems to fragmentation and actual loss due to encroachment of xerophytic mesquite woodland. In the study period, grasslands and desertscrub not only decreased in extent but also became more fragmented. That is, the number of grassland and desertscrub patches increased and their average patch sizes decreased. In stark contrast, the mesquite woodland patches increased in size, number, and connectivity. These changes have important impact for the hydrology of the region, since the energy and water balance characteristics for these cover types are significantly different. The process demonstrates a simple procedure to document changes and determine ecosystem vulnerabilities through the use of change detection and indicator development, especially in regard to traditional degradation processes that have occurred throughout the western rangelands involving changes of vegetative cover and acceleration of water and wind erosion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)179-195
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironmental Monitoring and Assessment
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2000


  • Accuracy assessment
  • Change detection
  • Landscape characterization
  • Regional vulnerability
  • Remote sensing
  • San Pedro River

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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