Augmenting agroecosystem models with remote sensing data and machine learning increases overall estimates of nitrate-nitrogen leaching

Matthew Nowatzke, Luis Damiano, Fernando E. Miguez, Gabe S. McNunn, Jarad Niemi, Lisa A. Schulte, Emily A. Heaton, Andy VanLoocke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Process-based agroecosystem models are powerful tools to assess performance of managed landscapes, but their ability to accurately represent reality is limited by the types of input data they can use. Ensuring these models can represent cropping field heterogeneity and environmental impact is important, especially given the growing interest in using agroecosystem models to quantify ecosystem services from best management practices and land use change. We posited that augmenting process-based agroecosystem models with additional field-specific information such as topography, hydrologic processes, or independent indicators of yield could help limit simulation artifacts that obscure mechanisms driving observed variations. To test this, we augmented the agroecosystem model Agricultural Production Systems Simulator (APSIM) with field-specific topography and satellite imagery in a simulation framework we call Foresite. We used Foresite to optimize APSIM yield predictions to match those created from a machine learning model built on remotely sensed indicators of hydrology and plant productivity. Using these improved subfield yield predictions to guide APSIM optimization, total N O 3 − N loss estimates increased by 39% in maize and 20% in soybeans when summed across all years. In addition, we found a disproportionate total amount of leaching in the lowest yielding field areas vs the highest yielding areas in maize (42% vs 15%) and a similar effect in soybeans (31% vs 20%). Overall, we found that augmenting process-based models with now-common subfield remotely sensed data significantly increased values of predicted nutrient loss from fields, indicating opportunities to improve field-scale agroecosystem simulations, particularly if used to calculate nutrient credits in ecosystem service markets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number114010
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2022


  • ecosystem services
  • machine learning
  • modeling
  • nitrate leaching
  • remote sensing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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