Working with Spectral Indices using Landsat – Building an ‘index stack’

As part of our ongoing series using spectral indices to automatically delineate landscape features such as clouds, snow/ice, water and vegetation in Landsat imagery, here we extend this analysis to create an ‘index stack’ using a set of three indices.

Specifically, we utilize a Landsat 8 image of Lake Tahoe to generate output layers for the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI), and Normalized Difference Snow Index (NDSI). We then stack these output layers into a single image and display the resulting ‘index stack’ as an RGB image.

Lake Tahoe index stack

The specific steps and equations utilized for calculating the three indices are outlined in our earlier posts in this series: NDVI, NDWI, and NDSI. These indices, along with many other spectral indices, can also be calculated using the new Spectral Index tool included in ENVI 5.2; however, note that the NDWI calculation in this tool is a different index than the one presented here.

Once the indices have been calculated, the next step is to stack the output layers together into a single image. In ENVI this can be accomplished using the Layer Stacking tool found under Raster Management in the ENVI Toolbox.

The resulting image can then be displayed as a standard RGB, where in our example we have stacked the indices as follows: R – NDSI, G – NDVI, B – NDWI.

Lake Tahoe index compilation

It becomes readily apparent in this image stack that particular colors can be equated to different landscape features. For example, vegetation displays here as green, water as purple, snow/ice as magenta, and soil, rocks, and barren land as blue. Clouds also appear as a mixture of purple and magenta, so in this case these indices alone are not sufficient for differentiating clouds from water and snow/ice. Hence there is a need for including additional indices when developing a robust automated assessment procedure.

The index stack not only provides rapid visualization of different landscape features, but also delivers the numerical foundation for quantitative analysis and image classification using the index values. Considering the many different indices that are available beyond those presented here, the possibilities for expanding and modifying this type of analysis are virtually limitless.

So while these types of indices may be conceptually simple, together they can be powerful tools for image analysis.