The Guadalentin basin, located in the SE of Spain, has a semiarid climate and presents typical characteristics of Mediterranean landscapes vulnerable to land degradation processes and desertification risks. In such an environment, when the vegetation cover is low, the signal received by satellites is dominated by the spectral properties of soils. Changes in these properties can be interpreted in terms of varying soil surface conditions. These optical changes underline the major modifications affecting soil surface under land degradation processes. The present research uses remote sensing techniques to characterise land degradation based on two approaches: spectral mixture analysis and a set of indices describing the spectrum shape. It also presents an integrated approach for evaluating ecosystem vulnerability to land degradation, through the combined analysis of spectrally-derived land units and geomorphometric units. Specific objectives consist of evaluating the potential of extending the indices describing the spectrum shape to the short-wave infrared region, and of identifying landscape units according to their sensitivity to land degradation. Our results demonstrate that the spatial distribution of regional patterns of land degradation can be reliably mapped by using both indices describing the spectrum shape and spectral unmixing. The latter holds great potential for operational mapping of soil conditions and erosion features from optical images. Moreover, landscape-unit analysis shows that DEM (Digital Elevation Model) variables combined with spectral information are very useful for land degradation assessment. This approach allowed us to segment the landscape into different units according to their lithology and vegetation characteristics, as well as their susceptibility to water erosion.
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