Effects of standing litter on the biophysical interpretation of plant canopies with spectral indices

W. J.D. Van Leeuwen, A. R. Huete

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

164 Scopus citations


Litter is frequently present within vegetation canopies and thus contributes to the overall spectral response of a canopy. Consequently, litter will affect spectral indices designed to be sensitive to green vegetation, soil brightness or other features. The main objectives of the current research were to 1) evaluate the spectral properties of green vegetation and litter and 2) quantify the effect of standing litter on the performance of spectral indices. The SAIL (scattering by arbitrarily inclined leaves) model was used to generate canopy reflectance "mixtures" and to estimate fractions of absorbed photosynthetically active radiation (fAPAR) with varying leaf area index (LAI), soil background, combinations of vegetation component spectral properties, and one or two horizontal vegetation layers. Spectral measurements of different bare soils and mature green and senescent leaves of representative plant species at the HAPEX-Sahel (Hydrological Atmospheric Pilot Experiment) study sites were used as input. The normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), the soil adjusted vegetation index (SAVI), and the modified NDVI (MNDVI) and mixture model spectral indices were selected to evaluate their performance with respect to standing litter and green vegetation mixtures. Spectral reflectance signatures of leaf litter varied significantly, but strongly resembled soil spectral characteristics. The biophysical parameters (LAI, fAPAR), derived from spectral vegetation indices, tended to be overestimated for randomly distributed, sparse green and litter vegetation cover mixtures, and underestimated for randomly distributed dense green and litter vegetation cover mixtures. All spectral indices and their biophysical interpretation were significantly altered by variability in 1) green leaf, leaf litter, and bark optical properties, 2) the amount and position of standing leaf litter, 3) leaf angle distribution, and 4) soil background. The NDVI response to these variables was inconsistent, and was the most affected by litter. The spectral mixture model indices, designed to be sensitive to litter, were shown to be promising for the identification of litter present among different ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)123-138
Number of pages16
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Soil Science
  • Geology
  • Computers in Earth Sciences


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