International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire

Seasonal and topographic effects on estimating fire severity from Landsat TM/ETM+ data

David L. Verbyla A C , Eric S. Kasischke B and Elizabeth E. Hoy B

A Department of Forest Sciences, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA.

B Department of Geography, University of Maryland, 2181 LeFrak Hall, College Park, MD 20742, USA.

C Corresponding author. Email:

International Journal of Wildland Fire 17(4) 527-534
Submitted: 4 March 2008  Accepted: 16 June 2008   Published: 6 August 2008


The maximum solar elevation is typically less than 50 degrees in the Alaskan boreal region and solar elevation varies substantially during the growing season. Because of the relatively low solar elevation at boreal latitudes, the effect of topography on spectral reflectance can influence fire severity indices derived from remotely sensed data. We used Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM) and Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM) data to test the effect of changing solar elevation and topography on the Normalized Burn Ratio (NBR) and the differenced Normalized Burn Ratio (dNBR). When a time series of unburned pixels from black spruce forests was examined, we found that NBR values consistently decreased from June through September. At the stand level, dNBR-derived values from similar unburned and burned black spruce stands were substantially higher from September imagery relative to July or August imagery. Within the Boundary burn, we found mean post-fire NBR to consistently vary owing to topographic control of potential solar radiation. To minimise spectral response due to topographic control of vegetation and fire severity, we computed a dNBR using images from August and September immediately after a June–July wildfire. There was a negative bias in remotely sensed fire severity estimates as potential solar radiation decreased owing to topography. Thus fire severity would be underestimated for stands in valley bottoms dominated by topographic shading or on steep north-facing slopes oriented away from incoming solar radiation. This is especially important because highly flammable black spruce stands typically occur on such sites. We demonstrate the effect of changing pre- and post-fire image dates on fire severity estimates by using a fixed NBR threshold defining ‘high severity’. The actual fire severity was constant, but owing to changes in phenology and solar elevation, ‘high severity’ pixels within a burn ranged from 56 to 76%. Because spectral reflectance values vary substantially as solar elevation and plant phenology change, the use of reflectance-based indices to assess trends in burn severity across regions or years may be especially difficult in high-latitude areas such as the Alaskan boreal forest.

Additional keywords: boreal forest, fire severity, Normalized Burn Ratio, solar elevation, topography.


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