Estimating fractional green vegetation cover of Mongolian grasslands using digital camera images and MODIS satellite vegetation indices

Fractional green vegetation cover (FVC) is a useful indicator for monitoring grassland status. Satellite imagery with coarse spatial but high temporal resolutions has been preferred to monitor seasonal and inter-annual FVC dynamics in wide geographic area such as Mongolian steppe. However, the coarse spatial resolution can cause a certain uncertainty in the satellite-based FVC estimation, which calls attention to develop a robust statistical test for the relationship between field FVC and satellite-derived vegetation indices. In the arid and semi-arid Mongolian steppe, nadir pointing digital camera images (DCI) were collected and used to produce a FVC dataset to support the evaluation of satellite-based FVC retrievals. An optimal DCI processing method was determined with respect to three color spaces (RGB, HIS, L*a*b*) and six green pixel classification algorithms, from which a country-wide dataset of DCI-FVC was produced and used for evaluating the accuracy of satellite-based FVC estimates from MODIS vegetation indices. We applied three empirical and three semi-empirical MODIS-FVC retrieval models. DCI data were collected from 96 sites across the Mongolian steppe from 2012 to 2014. The histogram algorithm using the hue (H) value of the HIS color space was the optimal DCI method (r2 = 0.94, percent root-mean-square-error (RMSE) = 7.1%). For MODIS-FVC retrievals, semi-empirical Baret model was the best-performing model with the highest r2 (0.69) and the lowest RMSE (49.7%), while the lowest MB (+1.1%) was found for the regression model with normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI). The high RMSE (>50% or so) is an issue requiring further enhancement of satellite-based FVC retrievals accounting for key plant and soil parameters relevant to the Mongolian steppe and for scale mismatch between sampling and MODIS data.