Remotely sensed canopy height reveals three pantropical ecosystem states

Chi Xu*, Stijn Hantson, Milena Holmgren, Egbert H. Van Nes, Arie Staal, Marten Scheffer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


Although canopy height has long been a focus of interest in ecology, it has remained difficult to study at large spatial scales. Recently, satellite-borne LiDAR equipment produced the first systematic high resolution maps of vegetation height worldwide. Here we show that this new resource reveals three marked modes in tropical canopy height ∼40, ∼12, and ∼2 m corresponding to forest, savanna, and treeless landscapes. The distribution of these modes is consistent with the often hypothesized forest-savanna bistability and suggests that both states can be stable in areas with a mean annual precipitation between ~1,500 and ~2,000 mm. Although the canopy height states correspond largely to the much discussed tree cover states, there are differences, too. For instance, there are places with savanna-like sparse tree cover that have a forest-like high canopy, suggesting that rather than true savanna, those are thinned relicts of forest. This illustrates how complementary sets of remotely sensed indicators may provide increasingly sophisticated ways to study ecological phenomena at a global scale.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2518-2521
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Alternative stable states
  • Climate change
  • Desert
  • Rainforest
  • Remote sensing
  • Savanna
  • Tree cover


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