Mapping and Quantifying Sargassum Distribution and Coverage in the Central West Atlantic using MODIS Observations

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Sargassum, Remote sensing, MODIS, FAI, AFAI, Cloud, Cloud shadow, Feature extraction, Surface fitting

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Sargassum washing ashore on the beaches of the Caribbean Islands since 2011 has caused problems for the local environments, tourism, and economies. Although preliminary results of Sargassum distributions in the nearby oceans have been obtained using measurements from the Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS), MERIS stopped functioning in 2012, and detecting and quantifying Sargassum distributions still face technical challenges due to ambiguous pixels from clouds, cloud shadows, cloud adjacency effect, and large-scale image gradient. In this paper, a novel approach is developed to detect Sargassum presence and to quantify Sargassum coverage using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) alternative floating algae index (AFAI), which examines the red-edge reflectance of floating vegetation. This approach includes three basic steps: 1) classification of Sargassum-containing pixels through correction of large-scale gradient, masking clouds and cloud shadows, and removal of ambiguous pixels; 2) linear unmixing of Sargassum-containing pixels; and, 3) statistics of Sargassum area coverage in pre-defined grids at monthly, seasonal, and annual intervals. In the absence of direct field measurements to validate the results, limited observations from the Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO) measurements and numerous local reports support the conclusion that the elevated AFAI signals are due to the presence of Sargassum instead of other floating materials, and various sensitivity analyses are used to quantify the uncertainties in the derived Sargassum area coverage. The approach was applied to MODIS observations between 2000 and 2015 over the Central West Atlantic (CWA) region (0–22°N, 63–38°W) to derive the spatial and temporal distribution patterns as well as the total area coverage of Sargassum. Results indicate that the first widespread Sargassum distribution event occurred in 2011, consistent with previous MERIS findings. Since 2011, only 2013 showed a minimal Sargassum coverage similar to the period of 2000 to 2010; all other years showed significantly more coverage. More alarmingly, the summer months of 2015 showed mean coverage of > 2000 km2, or about 4 times of the summer 2011 coverage and 20 times of the summer 2000 to 2010 coverage. Analysis of several environmental variables provided some hints on the reasons causing the inter-annual changes after 2010, yet further multi-disciplinary research (including in situ measurements) is required to understand such changes and long-term trends in Sargassum coverage.

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Remote Sensing of Environment, v. 183, p. 350-367