Measuring Vegetation

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI)

To determine the density of green on a patch of land, researchers must observe the distinct colors (wavelengths) of visible and near-infrared sunlight reflected by the plants. As can be seen through a prism, many different wavelengths make up the spectrum of sunlight. When sunlight strikes objects, certain wavelengths of this spectrum are absorbed and other wavelengths are reflected. The pigment in plant leaves, chlorophyll, strongly absorbs visible light (from 0.4 to 0.7 µm) for use in photosynthesis. The cell structure of the leaves, on the other hand, strongly reflects near-infrared light (from 0.7 to 1.1 µm). The more leaves a plant has, the more these wavelengths of light are affected, respectively.

Visible and Near-Infrared
Vegetation appears very different at visible and near-infrared wavelengths. In visible light (top), vegetated areas are very dark, almost black, while desert regions (like the Sahara) are light. At near-infrared wavelengths, the vegetation is brighter and deserts are about the same. By comparing visible and infrared light, scientists measure the relative amount of vegetation. (The variation in shade is more apparent in the detail of the U.S. West Coast).

The NOAA AVHRR instrument has five detectors, two of which are sensitive to the wavelengths of light ranging from 0.55–0.70 and 0.73–1.0 micrometers. With AVHRR’s detectors, researchers can measure the intensity of light coming off the Earth in visible and near-infrared wavelengths and quantify the photosynthetic capacity of the vegetation in a given pixel (an AVHRR pixel is 1 square km) of land surface. In general, if there is much more reflected radiation in near-infrared wavelengths than in visible wavelengths, then the vegetation in that pixel is likely to be dense and may contain some type of forest. If there is very little difference in the intensity of visible and near-infrared wavelengths reflected, then the vegetation is probably sparse and may consist of grassland, tundra, or desert.

NDVI example

NDVI is calculated from the visible and near-infrared light reflected by vegetation. Healthy vegetation (left) absorbs most of the visible light that hits it, and reflects a large portion of the near-infrared light. Unhealthy or sparse vegetation (right) reflects more visible light and less near-infrared light. The numbers on the figure above are representative of actual values, but real vegetation is much more varied. (Illustration by Robert Simmon).

Nearly all satellite Vegetation Indices employ this difference formula to quantify the density of plant growth on the Earth — near-infrared radiation minus visible radiation divided by near-infrared radiation plus visible radiation. The result of this formula is called the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Written mathematically, the formula is:


Calculations of NDVI for a given pixel always result in a number that ranges from minus one (-1) to plus one (+1); however, no green leaves gives a value close to zero. A zero means no vegetation and close to +1 (0.8 - 0.9) indicates the highest possible density of green leaves.

next: NDVI as an Indicator of Drought
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Measuring Vegetation (NDVI & EVI)
Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI)
NDVI as an Indicator of Drought
Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI)

Related Links:
Drought: the Creeping Disaster