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Optimisation of savannah land cover characterisation with optical and SAR data

Symeonakis, I and Higginbottom, T and Petroulaki, K and Rabe, A (2018) Optimisation of savannah land cover characterisation with optical and SAR data. Remote Sensing. ISSN 2072-4292


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Accurately mapping savannah land cover at the regional scale can provide useful input to policy decision making efforts regarding, for example, bush control or overgrazing, as well as to global carbon emissions models. Recent attempts have employed Earth observation data, either from optical or radar sensors, and most commonly from the dry season when the spectral difference between woody vegetation, crops and grasses is maximised. By far the most common practice has been the use of Landsat optical bands, but some studies have also used vegetation indices or SAR data. However, conflicting reports with regards to the effectiveness of the different approaches have emerged, leaving the respective land cover mapping community with unclear methodological pathways to follow. We address this issue by employing Landsat and Advanced Land Observing Satellite Phased Array type L-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (ALOS PALSAR) data to assess the accuracy of mapping the main savannah land cover types of woody vegetation, grassland, cropland and non-vegetated land. The study area is in southern Africa, covering approximately 44,000 km2. We test the performance of 15 different models comprised of combinations of optical and radar data from the dry and wet seasons. Our results show that a number of models perform well and very similarly. The highest overall accuracy is achieved by the model that incorporates both optical and synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) data from both dry and wet seasons with an overall accuracy of 91.1% (±1.7%): this is almost a 10% improvement from using only the dry season Landsat data (81.7 ± 2.3%). The SAR-only models were capable of mapping woody cover effectively, achieving similar or lower omission and commission errors than the optical models, but other classes were detected with lower accuracies. Our main conclusion is that the combination of metrics from different sensors and seasons improves results and should be the preferred methodological pathway for accurate savannah land cover mapping, especially now with the availability of Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data. Our findings can provide much needed assistance to land cover monitoring efforts to savannahs in general, and in particular to southern African savannahs, where a number of land cover change processes have been related with the observed land degradation in the region.

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