Maps, Graphs, and Data

Vegetation Index Map

These vegetation index maps show where and how much green leaf vegetation was growing for the time period shown.

The colors on these maps show a measure of the "greenness" of Earth's landscapes. The values on these maps—ranging from -0.1 to 0.9—have no unit. Rather, they are index values in which higher values (0.4 to 0.9) show lands covered by green, leafy vegetation and lower values (0 to 0.4) show lands where there is little or no vegetation.

As can be seen through a prism, many different wavelengths make up the spectrum of sunlight. When sunlight shines on objects, certain wavelengths are absorbed and other wavelengths are reflected. The pigment in plant leaves—chlorophyll—strongly absorbs visible light for use in photosynthesis. The cell structure of the leaves, on the other hand, strongly reflects near-infrared light. The more leaves a plant has, the more these wavelengths of light are affected. Scientists exploit this knowledge of plants' interactions with light to map the density of green vegetation across Earth's landscapes by designing satellite sensors to measure the wavelengths of red and near-infrared light that is absorbed and reflected by plants all over the world.

Subtracting plants' reflectance of red light from near-infrared light and then dividing that difference by the addition of the red and near-infrared light reflected produces a value that scientists call the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). For example, an area that reflects 40 percent of near-infrared light and 30 percent of red light results in the following equation:

                                                     (0.40 - 0.30) / (0.40 + 0.30) = 0.14

An NDVI value of 0.14 indicates that vegetation in this area is very sparse. The NDVI maps shown here were made using data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites.

Plants are sensitive to their environment and serve as a good indicator whenever there is a change. Scientists routinely produce global NDVI maps to help them monitor and investigate shifts in plant growth patterns that occur in response to climate changes, environmental changes, and changes caused by humans. Farmers and resource managers also use NDVI maps to help them monitor the health of our forests and croplands. So these maps are used both for scientific research as well as societal benefit.

Mini Lesson

Exploring Annual Change

GLOBE Earth System Poster Learning Activities
GLOBE Earth System Poster Learning Activities

Goal:   Students will observe monthly images of changing vegetation patterns, looking for any changes that are occurring throughout 2017.


  1. Distribute monthly images from Document Resources.
    1. February 2017 Vegetation Index
    2. April 2017 Vegetation Index
    3. June 2017 Vegetation Index
    4. August 2017 Vegetation Index
    5. October 2017 Vegetation Index
    6. December 2017 Vegetation Index
  2. Have students arrange images in chronological order.
  3. Ask groups to identify annual cycles for their variable. Use the following guiding questions:
  4. What do the colors represent?  Dark green areas show where there was a lot of green leaf growth; light greens show where there was some green leaf growth, and tan areas show little or no growth. Black means "no data."

  5. What changes do you see through the year? What explanations can you suggest for these patterns?

  6. Choose a location or region. During which months do the extreme highs and lows occur? What explanations can you suggest for the timing of those extremes?

  7. Which regions experience both the extreme highs and lows? Which regions don’t experience the extremes? Why do you think this happens?

  8. What differences, if any, do you find between the year’s variations over the oceans versus the year’s variations over the continents?

  9. Are there regions that remained relatively unchanged over the year? Why do you think this happens?

[Teaching Hint: if students have trouble locating significant changes have them focus their attention on one location on the image throughout the year.]

After several minutes, ask the groups to share with the entire class their discoveries of patterns and their interpretation of those patterns.