Regional aboveground live carbon losses due to drought-induced tree dieback in piñon-juniper ecosystems

Cho ying Huang, Gregory P. Asner, Nichole N. Barger, Jason C. Neff, M. Lisa Floyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Recent large-scale dieback of piñon-juniper (P-J) woodlands and forests across the western US occurred as a result of multi-year drought and subsequent insect and disease outbreaks. P-J vegetation is spatially extensive, thus large-scale mortality events such as the one that has occurred over the past several years could significantly alter regional carbon (C) budgets. Our objective was to use a remote sensing technique coupled with field-based data to estimate changes in aboveground live C stocks across a 4100 km2 region of Colorado caused by P-J tree mortality. We hypothesized that dieback would amplify the phenological dynamics of P-J vegetation, and these variations would be related to drought-induced losses of live P-J aboveground biomass (AGB) that are discernible using time-series remote sensing vegetation data. Here, we assess live P-J AGB loss using dry season fractional photosynthetic vegetation cover (PV) derived from multi-year Landsat images. Our results showed a strong linear positive relationship between the maximum decline in PV and field-measured losses of live P-J AGB during the period 2000-05 (r2 = 0.64, p = 0.002). These results were then used to map AGB losses throughout the study region. Mean live aboveground C loss (± sd) was 10.0 (± 3.4) Mg C ha- 1. Total aboveground live P-J C loss was 4.6 Tg C, which was approximately 39 times higher than the concurrent C loss attributed to wildfire and management treatments within or near to the national forests of the study region. Our results suggest that spatially extensive mortality events such as the one observed in P-J woodlands across the western US in the past decade may significantly alter the ecosystem C balance for decades to come. Remote sensing techniques to monitor changes in aboveground C stocks, such as the one developed in our study, may support regional and global C monitoring in the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1471-1479
Number of pages9
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 15 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Bark beetle
  • Carbon storage
  • Colorado Plateau
  • Juniperus osteosperma
  • Landsat
  • Pinus edulis
  • Spectral mixture analysis
  • Tree mortality
  • Wildfire

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Soil Science
  • Geology
  • Computers in Earth Sciences


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