Thermal anomalies detect critical global land surface changes

David J. Mildrexler, M. Zhao, W. B. Cohen, S. W. Running, X. P. Song, M. O. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Measurements that link surface conditions and climate can provide critical information on important biospheric changes occurring in the Earth system. As the direct driving force of energy and water fluxes at the surface-atmosphere interface, land surface temperature (LST) provides information on physical processes of land-cover change and energy-balance changes that air temperature cannot provide. Annual maximum LST (LSTmax) is especially powerful at minimizing synoptic and seasonal variability and highlighting changes associated with extreme climatic events and significant land-cover changes. The authors investigate whether maximum thermal anomalies from satellite observations could detect heat waves and droughts, a melting cryosphere, and disturbances in the tropical forest from 2003 to 2014. The 1-km2 LSTmax anomalies peaked in 2010 when 20% of the global land area experienced anomalies of greater than 1 standard deviation and over 4% of the global land area was subject to positive anomalies exceeding 2 standard deviations. Positive LSTmax anomalies display complex spatial patterns associated with heat waves and droughts across the global land area. The findings presented herein show that entire biomes are experiencing shifts in their LSTmax distributions driven by extreme climatic events and large-scale land surface changes, such as melting of ice sheets, severe droughts, and the incremental effects of forest loss in tropical forests. As climate warming and land-cover changes continue, it is likely that Earth's maximum surface temperatures will experience greater and more frequent directional shifts, increasing the possibility that critical thresholds in Earth's ecosystems and climate system will be surpassed, resulting in profound and irreversible changes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)391-411
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018


  • Extreme events
  • Land surface
  • Remote sensing
  • Surface temperature


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