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Monitoring dryland trees with remote sensing. Part A: Beyond CORONA – Historical HEXAGON satellite imagery as a new data source for mapping open-canopy woodlands on the tree level

Provisionally accepted
The final version of the article will be published here soon pending final quality checks
 Irene Marzolff1*,  Mario Kirchhoff2, Robin Stephan1,  Manuel Seeger2, Ali A. Hssaine3 and Johannes B. Ries2
  • 1Department of Physical Geography, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  • 2Department of Physical Geography, Trier University, Germany
  • 3Department of Geography, Université Ibn Zohr, Morocco

Monitoring woody cover by remote sensing is considered a key methodology towards sustainable management of trees in dryland forests. However, while modern very high resolution satellite (VHRS) sensors allow woodland mapping at the individual tree level, the historical perspective is often hindered by lack of appropriate image data. In this first study employing the newly accessible historical HEXAGON KH-9 stereo-panoramic camera images for environmental research, we propose their use for mapping trees in open-canopy conditions. The 2–4 feet resolution panchromatic HEXAGON satellite photographs were taken 1971–1986 within the American reconnaissance programs that are better known to the scientific community for their lower-resolution CORONA images. Our aim is to evaluate the potential of combining historical CORONA and HEXAGON with recent WorldView VHRS imagery for retrospective woodland change mapping on the tree level.
We mapped all trees on 30 1-hectare test sites in open-canopy argan woodlands in Morocco in the field and from the VHRS imagery for estimating changes of tree density and size between 1967/1972 and 2018. Prior to image interpretation, we used simulations based on unmanned aerial system (UAS) imagery for exemplarily examining the role of illumination, viewing geometry and image resolution on the appearance of trees and their shadows in the historical panchromatic images. We show that understanding these parameters is imperative for correct detection and size-estimation of tree crowns.
Our results confirm that tree maps derived solely from VHRS image analysis generally underestimate the number of small trees and trees in clumped-canopy groups. Nevertheless, HEXAGON images compare remarkably well with WorldView images and have much higher tree-mapping potential than CORONA. By classifying the trees in three sizes, we were able to measure tree-cover changes on an ordinal scale. Although we found no clear trend of forest degradation or recovery, our argan forest sites show varying patterns of change, which are further analysed in Part B of our study.
We conclude that the HEXAGON stereo-panoramic camera images, of which 670,000 worldwide will soon be available, open exciting opportunities for retrospective monitoring of trees in open-canopy conditions and other woody vegetation patterns back into the 1980s and 1970s.

Keywords: Very high resolution satellite imagery, Hexagon, corona, Change mapping, open-canopy woodland, Dryland forest, Tree density, woody cover

Received: 15 Mar 2022; Accepted: 10 May 2022.

Copyright: © 2022 Marzolff, Kirchhoff, Stephan, Seeger, Hssaine and Ries. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Irene Marzolff, Department of Physical Geography, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Frankfurt am Main, Germany