Landsat-based classification in the cloud: An opportunity for a paradigm shift in land cover monitoring

Satellite-derived land cover maps play an important role in many applications, including monitoring of smallholder-dominated agricultural landscapes. New cloud-based computing platforms and satellite sensors offer opportunities for generating land cover maps designed to meet the spatial and temporal requirements of specific applications. Such maps can be a significant improvement compared to existing products, which tend to be coarser than 300 m, are often not representative of areas with fast-paced land use change, and have a fixed set of cover classes. Here, we present two approaches for land cover classification using the Landsat archive within Google Earth Engine. Random forest classification was performed with (1) season-based composites, where median values of individual bands and vegetation indices were generated from four years for each of four seasons, and (2) metric-based composites, where different quantiles were computed for the entire four-year period. These approaches were tested for six land cover types spanning over 18,000 locations in Zambia, with ground “truth” determined by visual inspection of high-resolution imagery from Google Earth. The methods were trained on 30% of these points and tested on the remaining 70%, and results were also compared with existing land cover products. Overall accuracies of about 89% were achieved for the season- and metric-based approaches for individual classes, with 93%and 94% accuracy for distinguishing cropland from non-cropland. For the latter task, the existing Globeland30 dataset based on Landsat had much lower accuracies (around 77% on average), as did existing cover maps at coarser resolutions. Overall, the results support the use of either season or metric-based classification approaches. Both produce better results than those obtained from previous classifiers, which supports a general paradigm shift away from dependence on standard static products and towards custom generation of on-demand cover maps designed to fulfill the needs of each specific application.