Errors associated with atmospheric correction methods for airborne imaging spectroscopy: Implications for vegetation indices and plant traits

Ran Wang, John A. Gamon, Ryan Moore, Arthur I. Zygielbaum, Timothy J. Arkebauer, Rick Perk, Bryan Leavitt, Sergio Cogliati, Brian Wardlow, Yi Qi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Hyperspectral airborne imagery can provide rich information on plant physiological and structural properties at a scale intermediate to that of proximal and satellite remote sensing and has broad applications in assessing ecosystem function and biodiversity. A key processing step of airborne hyperspectral data is the atmospheric correction that compensates for path radiance, aerosol effects and gas absorption to derive an accurate surface reflectance that can be compared across time and space. In practice, routine correction procedures are often customized for various platforms without fully reporting or checking the errors systematically in the atmospheric correction. Such errors can have significant effects on downstream analyses such as vegetation indices or trait retrievals, and not all subsequent analyses are equally affected by the accuracy of reflectance retrievals. In this study, we examined the errors in three types of atmospheric correction methods including a radiative transfer model (RTM), empirical line correction (ELC) and a hybrid method that combines elements of the two via Bayesian inference. Our results revealed that the individual correction methods had different effects on the reflectance retrievals that impacted downstream measurements. Including spectral measurements from ground vegetation targets in addition to painted calibration targets improved the performance of the ELC method. The hybrid method yielded reflectance spectra that most closely matched the spectra of the ground validation data. The errors in vegetation indices differed with the methods, and certain indices (such as PRI) were more affected than indices that rely on stable, broader spectral features (e.g., NDVI). Plant pigment retrievals via partial least squares regression were less sensitive to errors in atmospheric correction. These findings demonstrate that obtaining high-quality, field spectral measurements over well-characterized calibration targets and representative land cover types within the scene is critical for accurate surface reflectance and subsequent downstream products, such as vegetation indices or plant traits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number112663
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Airborne remote sensing
  • Atmospheric correction
  • Imaging spectroscopy
  • Plant traits
  • Vegetation indices

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Soil Science
  • Geology
  • Computers in Earth Sciences


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