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Get More From Your NDVI Sensor

Modern technology has made it possible to sample Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) across a range of scales both in space and in time, from satellites sampling the entire earth’s surface to handheld small sensors that measure individual plants or even leaves.


Figure 1: NDVI is sensitive to the amount of vegetation cover that is present across the earth’s surface.

NDVI – Global

The broadest way to think of NDVI is data obtained from an earth orbiting satellite. In the figure above, you can see highly vegetated areas that have high NDVI values represented by dark green colors across the globe.  Conversely, areas of low vegetation have low NDVI values, which look brown.  NDVI is sensitive to the amount of vegetation cover that is present across the earth’s surface.

NDVI – Local

How might NDVI be useful at the plot level? Figure 2 below shows a successional gradient where time zero is a bare patch of soil, or a few forbs or annual grasses. If we leave that patch of ground for enough time, the vegetation will change: shrubs may take over from grasses and eventually we might see a forest. Across a large area, we may also move from grasslands to forest. In an agricultural system, there is yearly turnover of vegetation–from bare field to plant emergence, maturity, and senescence. This cycle repeats itself every year.  Within these growth cycles NDVI helps to quantify the the canopy growth that occurs over time as well as the spatial dynamics that occur across landscapes.


Figure 2: Seasonal growth plotted against spatiotemporal variation

Spectral Reflectance Data

So where does NDVI come from? In Figure 3, the x-axis plots wavelength of light within the electromagnetic spectrum; 450 to 950 nm covers both the visible region and a portion of the near infrared. On the y-axis is percent reflectance.  This is a typical reflectance spectrum from green vegetation.


Figure 3: Spectral Reflectance Data. (Figure and Images:

The green hyperspectral line is what we would expect to get from a spectral radiometer.  Reflectance is typically low in the blue region, higher in the green region, and lower in the red region. It shifts dramatically as we cross from the visible to the near infrared. The two vertical bars labeled NDVI give you an idea of where a typical NDVI sensor measures within the spectrum.  One band is in the red region and the other is in the near infrared region.  

NDVI capitalizes on the large difference between the visible region and the near infrared portion of the spectrum. Healthy, growing plants reflect near infrared strongly.  The two images on the right of the figure above are of the same area.  The top image is displayed in true color, or three bands–blue, green and red. The image below is a false color infrared image.  The three bands displayed are blue, green, and in place of red, we used the near infrared. The bright red color indicates a lot of near infrared reflectance which is typical of green or healthy vegetation.

The reason NDVI is formulated with red and near infrared is because red keys in on chlorophyll absorption, and near infrared is sensitive to canopy structure and the internal cellular structure of leaves.  As we add leaves to a canopy, there’s more chlorophyll and structural complexities, thus we can expect decreasing amounts of red reflectance and higher amounts of near infrared reflectance.

How Do We Calculate the NDVI?


The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index takes into account the amount of near infrared (NIR) reflected by plants. It is calculated by dividing the difference between the reflectances (Rho) in the near infrared and red by the sum of the two.  NDVI values typically range between negative one (surface water) and one (full, vibrant canopy). Low values (0.1 – 0.4) indicate sparse canopies, while higher values (0.7 – 0.9) suggest full, active canopies.  

The way we calculate the percent reflectance is to quantify both the upwelling radiation (the radiation that’s striking the canopy and then reflected back toward our sensor) as well as the total amount of radiation that’s downwelling (from the sky) on a canopy.  The ratio of those two give us percent reflectance in each of the bands.

Next Week: Learn about NDVI applications, limitations, and how to correct for those limitations.

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