Ground-based infrared thermal imagery was applied for early detection of plant water deficit, i.e., before photosynthetic activity is depressed and before growth processes are negatively affected by water shortage. Remote and real-time sensing of radiative canopy surface temperature was performed in Michigan in Summer 1999 on peach and apple orchards, using a digital IR imaging radiometer. Still images and videos were acquired on single canopies of well-watered plants and plants subjected to water depletion. Atmospheric parameters were monitored simultaneously. On apple trees, the apparent canopy temperature showed a wider thermal dispersion [10 °C], compared to peach tree canopies [2–5 °C]. Central tendency and shape parameters describing the canopy thermal distribution could identify, even for apple canopies, the thermal signal [1–2 °C] of plant water deficit, before changes in leaf net photosynthetic rate and fruit diameter were observed. The results of this study support the application of digital infrared thermal imagery and image processing for early recognition of plant water deficit. The decrease of the cost of available thermographic cameras makes their use feasible.
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