Year to year variation in climate has been extreme in California's Sierra Nevada. In particular, low winter snowpack raises concerns about municipal water supplies as reservoirs are fed by spring meltwater. However, low winter snow cover has implications for the region's forests as well. Less snow (and warmer temperatures) often mean an earlier onset of spring and more extended and dryer summer than would otherwise occur.
In early September of 2013, unusually heavy rain resulted in catastrophic flooding across Colorado’s Front Range and downstream along the South Platte River. Rainfall exceeded 20 inches northwest of Denver, which is close to the average rainfall for that area during an entire year. Flash floods led to massive evacuations, a severe loss of public and private property, and loss of human life. Oil and gas lines and tanks were damaged, causing the release of thousands of gallons of pollutants into the South Platte River.
ForWarn's standard calculation of the current state of vegetation is based on the maximum NDVI value observed for each 24 day period. This standardized window is needed to minimize the chance that clouds or other atmospheric effects will cause misleading results in the change product. For many periods and in some portions of the US, a much shorter window is sometimes possible. ForWarn's new Early Detect product uses the most recent clear view to capture change as soon as possible, even though clouds can sometimes cause issues.
Hurricane Sandy, one of the most damaging hurricanes to strike the United States, tested the monitoring ability of the ForWarn system. Detecting any disturbance is difficult during the spring and fall because vegetation is actively changing due to normal seasonal dynamics. Normal variation in weather can advance or retard the progress of these transitions by a week or more making it hard to know if observed change is from an early fall or an event. Hurricane Sandy struck the North Atlantic at the end of October which was in the middle of seasonal leaf decline.
The spring of 2012 was exceptional across much of the eastern US because it occurred weeks earlier than normal. Yet some forests also experienced strong spring hail storms that left leaves in tatters and set spring growth back. Forwarn successfully captured this localized hail event that struck the watershed that the City of Asheville uses as their primary water supply in early May. At the time, some was observed from lower elevation vantage points, but the remoteness of this area affected made it difficult to systematically monitor from the ground.
ForWarn's ability to capture short and long-term change is shown by this animated image pair that provides two different temporal contexts for the same date in May of 2012. The "all year" baseline shows change since 2000. Note the patchy forest loss from strip mines in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Twin tornadoes also show up, and these occurred in March 2012. As expected, they also appear on the second image that shows change since May 2011, but most of the strip mine activity does not, as it took place prior to 2011.
This late April 2010 image shows a large anomaly just east of Lake Ontario on the Tug Hill Plateau of New York. A less severe area of departure from the prior year’s condition occurs to the east. Based on weather records, the 2009-10 winter at Lake Pleasant, just east of Tug Hill, was 4.5 degrees F warmer than it was during the prior winter. Continued warmth into spring explains why so much of the northeast is strongly blue in this image. Somewhat ironically, warmer winter temperatures caused more snowfall east of open water in places like the Tug Hill Plateau.
The Atchafalaya basin's forests thrive with seasonal flooding, yet high water is normally a spring phenomenon there. During the past month, unusually high water levels have inundated wetlands and forests along and near the Mississippi River basin. From space, floodwaters appear to decrease existing vegetation, as water masks low lying plant cover. According to the USGS, river discharge at Morgan City, Louisiana was 145,000 ft3/sec on January 16, 2012 compared to 84,000 ft3/sec the prior year. (See http://waterdata.usgs.gov.)
The forests of Texas continue to suffer through one of the most extreme droughts on record and a large number of trees have already died. The photo shows mortality in Memorial Park, Houston (Ron Billings, Texas Forest Service). By late August of 2011, the regional change in greenness from the prior year were extreme. Across the map, this decline was caused by the combined effects of drought and fire. By December of 2011, some recovery occurred as shown in blue, but this December condition is only with respect to conditions in December of 2010, which was also a drought.
On April 24, 2010, a lethal F4 tornado struck the forests east of Yazoo City, Mississippi. Within a few weeks the path of the storm and patterns of severity are clearly shown with this comparison of conditions relative to the same time in 2010--the year before the event (top image). After one year of recovery, that same track is shown in dark blue compared to the post-disturbance 1-year baseline. Had the long-term baseline been used for 2011, the path would still be shown as anomalously low as just one year of recovery was not enough to regain the decadal norm.