Testing a MODIS Global Disturbance Index across North America

David J. Mildrexler, Maosheng Zhao, Steven W. Running

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Large-scale ecosystem disturbances (LSEDs) have major impacts on the global carbon cycle as large pulses of CO2 and other trace gases from terrestrial biomass loss are emitted to the atmosphere during disturbance events. The high temporal and spatial variability of the atmospheric emissions combined with the lack of a proven methodology to monitor LSEDs at the global scale make the timing, location and extent of vegetation disturbance a significant uncertainty in understanding the global carbon cycle. The MODIS Global Disturbance Index (MGDI) algorithm is designed for large-scale, regular, disturbance mapping using Aqua/Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Land Surface Temperature (LST) and Aqua/MODIS Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) data. The MGDI uses annual maximum composite LST data to detect fundamental changes in land-surface energy partitioning, while avoiding the high natural variability associated with tracking LST at daily, weekly, or seasonal time frames. Here we apply the full Aqua/MODIS dataset through 2006 to the improved MGDI algorithm across the woody ecosystems of North America and test the algorithm by comparison with confirmed, historical wildfire events and the windfall areas of documented major hurricanes. The MGDI accurately detects the location and extent of wildfire throughout North America and detects high and moderate severity impacts in the windfall area of major hurricanes. We also find detections associated with clear-cut logging and land-clearing on the forest-agricultural interface. The MGDI indicates that 1.5% (195,580 km2) of the woody ecosystems within North America was disturbed in 2005 and 0.5% (67,451 km2) was disturbed in 2006. The interannual variability is supported by wildfire detections and official burned area statistics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2103-2117
Number of pages15
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2009


  • Aqua/MODIS Land Surface Temperature (LST)
  • Ecosystem disturbance
  • Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI)
  • Hurricane
  • Range of natural variability
  • Wildfire


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