A methodology to derive global maps of leaf traits using remote sensing and climate data

Álvaro Moreno-Martínez, Gustau Camps-Valls, Jens Kattge, Nathaniel Robinson, Markus Reichstein, Peter van Bodegom, Koen Kramer, J. Hans C. Cornelissen, Peter Reich, Michael Bahn, Ülo Niinemets, Josep Peñuelas, Joseph M. Craine, Bruno E.L. Cerabolini, Vanessa Minden, Daniel C. Laughlin, Lawren Sack, Brady Allred, Christopher Baraloto, Chaeho ByunNadejda A. Soudzilovskaia, Steve W. Running

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

105 Scopus citations


This paper introduces a modular processing chain to derive global high-resolution maps of leaf traits. In particular, we present global maps at 500 m resolution of specific leaf area, leaf dry matter content, leaf nitrogen and phosphorus content per dry mass, and leaf nitrogen/phosphorus ratio. The processing chain exploits machine learning techniques along with optical remote sensing data (MODIS/Landsat) and climate data for gap filling and up-scaling of in-situ measured leaf traits. The chain first uses random forests regression with surrogates to fill gaps in the database (> 45% of missing entries) and maximizes the global representativeness of the trait dataset. Plant species are then aggregated to Plant Functional Types (PFTs). Next, the spatial abundance of PFTs at MODIS resolution (500 m) is calculated using Landsat data (30 m). Based on these PFT abundances, representative trait values are calculated for MODIS pixels with nearby trait data. Finally, different regression algorithms are applied to globally predict trait estimates from these MODIS pixels using remote sensing and climate data. The methods were compared in terms of precision, robustness and efficiency. The best model (random forests regression) shows good precision (normalized RMSE≤ 20%) and goodness of fit (averaged Pearson's correlation R = 0.78) in any considered trait. Along with the estimated global maps of leaf traits, we provide associated uncertainty estimates derived from the regression models. The process chain is modular, and can easily accommodate new traits, data streams (traits databases and remote sensing data), and methods. The machine learning techniques applied allow attribution of information gain to data input and thus provide the opportunity to understand trait-environment relationships at the plant and ecosystem scales. The new data products – the gap-filled trait matrix, a global map of PFT abundance per MODIS gridcells and the high-resolution global leaf trait maps – are complementary to existing large-scale observations of the land surface and we therefore anticipate substantial contributions to advances in quantifying, understanding and prediction of the Earth system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)69-88
Number of pages20
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier Inc.


  • Climate
  • Landsat
  • Machine learning
  • Plant ecology
  • Plant traits
  • Random forests
  • Remote sensing


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