Date of Award

Fall 2018

Project Type


Program or Major

Earth Sciences

Degree Name

Master of Science

First Advisor

Michael Palace

Second Advisor

Ruth K Varner

Third Advisor

Steve Frolking


Warming trends in sub-arctic regions have resulted in thawing of permafrost which in turn induces change in vegetation across peatlands both in areal extent and composition. Collapse of palsas (i.e. permafrost plateaus) has also been correlated with increases in methane (CH4) emission to the atmosphere. Vegetation change provides new microenvironments that promote CH4 production and emission, specifically through plant interactions and structure. By quantifying the changes in vegetation at the landscape scale, we will be able to scale the impact of thaw on CH4 emissions in these complex climate-sensitive northern ecosystems. We combine field-based measurements of vegetation composition and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) high resolution (3 cm) imagery to characterize vegetation change in a sub-arctic mire. The objective of this study is to analyze how vegetation from Stordalen Mire, Abisko, Sweden, has changed over time in response to permafrost thaw. At Stordalen Mire, we flew a fixed-wing UAS in July of each of four years, 2014 through 2017, over a 1 km x 0.5 km area. High precision GPS ground control points were used to georeference the imagery. Randomized square-meter plots were measured for vegetation composition and individually classified into one of five vegetation cover types, each representing a different stage of permafrost degradation. Using these training data, each year of imagery was classified by cover type in Google Earth Engine using a Random Forest Classifier. Textural information was extracted from the imagery, which provided additional spatial context information and improved classification accuracy. Twenty five percent of the training data were held back from the classification and used for validation, while the remaining seventy five percent of the training data were used to classify the imagery. The overall classification accuracy for 2014-2017 was 80.6%, 79.1%, 82.0%, and 82.9%, respectively. Percent cover across the landscape was calculated from each classification map and compared between years. Hummock sites, representing intact permafrost, decreased coverage by 9% from 2014-2017, while semi-wet sites increased coverage by 18%. This four-year comparison of vegetation cover indicated a rapid response to permafrost thaw. The use of a UAS allowed us to effectively capture the spatial heterogeneity of a northern peatland ecosystem. Estimation of vegetation cover types is vital in our understanding of the evolution of northern peatlands and their future role in the global carbon cycle.