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Sci Rep. 2019 Sep 26;9(1):13918. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-50273-2.

Vegetation dynamics in Alpine glacier forelands tackled from space.

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Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Technikerstr. 21a, 6020, Innsbruck, Austria.
Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Passau, Innstraße 40, 94032, Passau, Germany.
ENVEO IT GmbH, Fürstenweg 176, 6020, Innsbruck, Austria.
Patscher Strasse 20, 6080, Igls, Austria.
Oberrain 205, 6721, Thüringerberg, Austria.


Monitoring of plant succession in glacier forelands has so far been restricted to field sampling. In this study, in situ vegetation sampling along a chronosequence between Little Ice Age (LIA) maximum extent and the recent glacier terminus at Jamtalferner in the Austrian Alps is compared to time series of the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) calculated from 13 Landsat scenes (1985-2016). The glacier terminus positions at 16 dates between the LIA maximum and 2015 were analysed from historical maps, orthophotos and LiDAR images. We sampled plots of different ages since deglaciation, from very recent to approx. 150 years: after 100 years, roughly 80% of the ground is covered by plants and ground cover does not increase significantly thereafter. The number of species increases from 10-20 species on young sites to 40-50 species after 100 years. The NDVI increases with the time of exposure from a mean of 0.11 for 1985-1991 to 0.20 in 2009 and 0.27 in 2016. As the increase in ground cover is clearly reproduced by the NDVI (R² ground cover/NDVI 0.84) - even for sparsely vegetated areas -, we see a great potential of satellite-borne NDVI to perform regional characterizations of glacier forelands for hydrological, ecological and hazard management-related applications.

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