Skip booklet index and go to page content

Technical Thematic Report No. 17. - Monitoring ecosystems remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada

This report is also available in PDF format. Technical Thematic Report No. 17. - Monitoring ecosystems remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada. (PDF, 4.2 MB)

Document Information

Monitoring ecosystems remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada

Cover Page

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Monitoring ecosystems remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada.

Issued also in French under title:
Surveillance à distance des écosystèmes : sélection de tendances mesurées à partir d’observations par satellite du Canada.
Electronic monograph in PDF format.
ISBN 978-1-100-22458-9
Cat. no.: En14-43/17-2013E-PDF

Information contained in this publication or product may be reproduced, in part or in whole, and by any means, for personal or public non-commercial purposes, without charge or further permission, unless otherwise specified.
You are asked to:

  • Exercise due diligence in ensuring the accuracy of the materials reproduced;
  • Indicate both the complete title of the materials reproduced, as well as the author organization; and
  • Indicate that the reproduction is a copy of an official work that is published by the Government of Canada and that the reproduction has not been produced in affiliation with or with the endorsement of the Government of Canada.

Commercial reproduction and distribution is prohibited except with written permission from the author. For more information, please contact Environment Canada’s Inquiry Centre at 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only) or 819-997-2800 or email to

This report should be cited as:
Ahern, F., Frisk, J., Latifovic, R. and Pouliot, D. 2011. Monitoring ecosystems remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 17. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. v + 66 p.

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 2013
Aussi disponible en français


The Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers developed a Biodiversity Outcomes FrameworkFootnote1 in 2006 to focus conservation and restoration actions under the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy.Footnote2 Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010Footnote3 was the first report under this framework. It assesses progress towards the framework’s goal of “Healthy and Diverse Ecosystems” and the two desired conservation outcomes:

  1. productive, resilient, diverse ecosystems with the capacity to recover and adapt; and
  2. damaged ecosystems restored.

The 22 recurring key findings that are presented in Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010 emerged from synthesis and analysis of technical reports prepared as part of this project. Over 500 experts participated in the writing and review of these foundation documents. This report, Monitoring biodiversity remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada, is one of several reports prepared on the status and trends of national cross-cutting themes. It has been prepared and reviewed by experts in the field of study and reflects the views of its authors.


This project could not have been carried out without the enthusiastic and unflagging support of the first author’s colleagues across Canada. The Canada Centre for Remote Sensing provided the majority of the data used. He wants to thank Jean-Marc Chouinard for providing managerial support from the start, and to scientists Rasim Latifovic, Robert Fraser, Richard Fernandes, Bert Guindon, Ian Olthof, Darren Pouliot, and Hongxu Zhao for many helpful discussions. Without exception they willingly provided the data from their projects that he asked for and answered all the questions he had. Gunar Fedosejevs and Arvon Erickson helped him acquire the archival MSS data from the early Landsat satellites that were so useful in extending the timeframe back to the 1970s. Scientists at the Canadian Forest Service were equally helpful. Mike Wulder and Nicholas Coops (at UBC) provided national products, and help using them, from their BioSpace project. We also thank the reviewers of this report.

Ecological Classification System – Ecozones+

A slightly modified version of the Terrestrial Ecozones of Canada, described in the National Ecological Framework for Canada,Footnote4 provided the ecosystem-based units for all reports related to this project. Modifications from the original framework include: adjustments to terrestrial boundaries to reflect improvements from ground-truthing exercises; the combination of three Arctic ecozones into one; the use of two ecoprovinces – Western Interior Basin and Newfoundland Boreal; the addition of nine marine ecosystem-based units; and, the addition of the Great Lakes as a unit. This modified classification system is referred to as “ecozones+” throughout these reports to avoid confusion with the more familiar “ecozones” of the original

Ecological classification framework for the Ecosystem Status and Trends Report for Canada.


Long Description for Ecosystem Status and Trends Report for Canada.

This map of Canada shows the ecological classification framework for the Ecosystem Status and Trends Report, named “ecozones+”. This map shows the distribution of 15 terrestrial ecozones+ (Atlantic Maritime; Newfoundland Boreal; Taiga Shield; Mixedwood Plains; Boreal Shield; Hudson Plains; Prairies; Boreal Plains; Montane Cordillera; Western Interior Basin; Pacific Maritime; Boreal Cordillera; Taiga Cordillera; Taiga Plains; Arctic), two large lake ecozones+ (Great Lakes; Lake Winnipeg), and nine marine ecozones+ (North Coast and Hecate Strait; West Coast Vancouver Island; Strait of Georgia; Gulf of Maine and Scotian Shelf; Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence; Newfoundland and Labrador Shelves; Hudson Bay, James Bay and Fox Basin; Canadian Arctic Archipelago; Beaufort Sea).

Executive Summary

This Technical Thematic Report summarizes the results of four major remote sensing analyses for the ecozones+ of Canada: (1) Land Cover Change, 1985 to 2005; (2) Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) 1985 to 2006; (3) Average Dynamic Habitat Index, 2000 to 2006; and (4) Indicators of Forest Fragmentation, circa 2000. The period of analysis is depends on the information used to assess each theme. Major findings are listed here:

  • There was a net increase in the area of Fire Scars in Canada between 1985 and 2005 of approximately 146,000 km2, a 200% increase over the area of Fire Scars in 1985. There was, however, a decrease in Fire Scars during the last five years of the analysis (2000 to 2005).
  • Within the Agricultural Land class of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, a net area of approximately 5,020 km2 of Cropland/woodland (7.5% of the 1985 Cropland/woodland area) transitioned to the more intensive Cropland class from 1985 to 2005.
  • Urban area in the Golden Horseshoe region of Ontario increased from 1,111 km2 in 1974 to 1,436 km2 in 1990, with an average increase of 20 km2/year. The average rate of expansion increased to 23 km2/year between 1990 and 2005, with urban area increasing to 1,778 km2. The rate of urban expansion in the Lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia occurred at an average rate of 6 km2/year, increasing from 498 km2 in 1975 to 680 km2 in 2007.
  • Peak annual NDVI, an indicator of the amount and vigour of green vegetation, increased significantly over 22% of Canada between 1985 and 2006. Increasing NDVI was most evident in the north where processes are strongly climate driven, while trends in the south were less ubiquitous and found to be more driven by changes in land cover.
  • Seasonal variation in greenness, one of the three components of the Dynamic Habitat Index, was highly sensitive to changes in altitude, and has the potential to be a sensitive indicator of shifts in vegetation ranges though the current time series is too short to analyze trends.
  • Forest density is highest in the boreal region of Canada.


Remote sensing is “the science, technology and art of obtaining information about objects or phenomena from a distance” (CCRS, 2005). This report focuses on remote sensing information obtained from satellite sensors which measure reflected or emitted radiation from the earth’s surface. Remote sensing data, when verified and complemented with field-based data, can provide consistent and repeatable measurements of ecosystems, allowing for analysis of change over time. Satellite data is less costly and time intensive than direct field observations and is available for areas that may be otherwise inaccessible. Satellite data are also useful for putting the results of direct field measurements into a broader context.

At the outset of the Ecosystem Status and Trends Report (ESTR), a review of remote sensing activities and available datasets for examining ecosystem status and trends in Canada was conducted. Considerations for appropriate measurements and datasets included the spatial and temporal resolution, the length of the archive, and the timeliness of the information. High resolution data (<10 m) provides fine scale information, but the volume of data makes analysis time intensive. This scale of data is also not available for long term analyses. Medium resolution data (10 to 100 m), such as Landsat imagery provides fairly detailed information but still requires time- and data- intensive analysis. Landsat imagery is collected for the same area every 16 days (limiting seasonal specificityFootnote6 ) with archives going back to the 1970s. Use of high and medium resolution satellite information is therefore most useful for monitoring specific areas of concern, relying on a priori knowledge of sensitive areas, and likely missing areas of unexpected change. Coarse resolution data (>100 m) provides broad scale information consistently across Canada, with archives going back to the 1980s, resampled daily (allowing for seasonal specificity in measurements). Coarse resolution data will only detect large scale changes; making this is a more reactive as opposed to proactive approach to monitoring.

Based on the results of this review, the following information was collected and analyzed by ecozone+ for ESTR: broad scale land cover change across Canada from 1985 to 2005; case studies on urbanization in two of Canada’s fastest growing urban areas; trends in vegetation productivity (NDVI) across Canada from 1986 to 2006; status of a recently developed Dynamic Habitat Index for Canada (derived from fPAR, another measurement of vegetation productivity); and status of two forest-related indicators of forest fragmentation (forest density and forest edge density). This paper presents the results of these analyses by ecozone+. It was intended for this information to be incorporated into the individual ecozone+ reports with other information. This report does not provide a review of all remote sensing information in Canada. It focuses on information available across Canada, and therefore, further relevant remote sensing information specific to a particular ecozone+ may also be included in those reports.


Footnote 1

Environment Canada. 2006. Biodiversity outcomes framework for Canada. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. 8 p.

Return to reference1

Footnote 2

Federal-Provincial-Territorial Biodiversity Working Group. 1995. Canadian biodiversity strategy: Canada's response to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Environment Canada, Biodiversity Convention Office. Ottawa, ON. 77 p.

Return to reference2

Footnote 3

Federal, Provincial and Territorial Governments of Canada. 2010. Canadian biodiversity: ecosystem status and trends 2010. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. vi + 142 p.

Return to reference3

Footnote 4

Ecological Stratification Working Group. 1995. A national ecological framework for Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Research Branch, Centre for Land and Biological Resources Research and Environment Canada, State of the Environment Directorate, Ecozone Analysis Branch. Ottawa/Hull, ON. 117 p. Report and national map at 1:7 500 000 scale.

Return to reference4

Footnote 5

Rankin, R., Austin, M. and Rice, J. 2011. Ecological classification system for the ecosystem status and trends report. Canadian Biodiveristy: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 1. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON.

Return to reference5

Footnote 6

Cloud-free Landsat images are required for most analyses. So, as a given scene is only resampled every 16 days, a cloud-free image may not be available within a specific time period.

Return to reference6