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Efficient crop type mapping based on remote sensing in the Central Valley, California


Most agricultural systems in California's Central Valley are purposely flexible and intentionally designed to meet the demands of dynamic markets. Agricultural land use is also impacted by climate change and urban development. As a result, crops change annually and semiannually, which makes estimating agricultural water use difficult, especially given the existing method by which agricultural land use is identified and mapped. A minor portion of agricultural land is surveyed annually for land-use type, and every 5 to 8 years the entire valley is completely evaluated. So far no effort has been made to effectively and efficiently identify specific crop types on an annual basis in this area. The potential of satellite imagery to map agricultural land cover and estimate water usage in the Central Valley is explored. Efforts are made to minimize the cost and reduce the time of production during the mapping process.

The land use change analysis shows that a remote sensing based mapping method is the only means to map the frequent change of major crop types. The traditional maximum likelihood classification approach is first utilized to map crop types to test the classification capacity of existing algorithms. High accuracy is achieved with sufficient ground truth data for training, and crop maps of moderate quality can be timely produced to facilitate a near-real-time water use estimate. However, the large set of ground truth data required by this method results in high costs in data collection. It is difficult to reduce the cost because a trained classification algorithm is not transferable between different years or different regions.

A phenology based classification (PBC) approach is developed which extracts phenological metrics from annual vegetation index profiles and identifies crop types based on these metrics using decision trees. According to the comparison with traditional maximum likelihood classification, this phenology-based approach shows great advantages when the size of the training set is limited by ground truth availability. Once developed, the classifier is able to be applied to different years and a vast area with only a few adjustments according to local agricultural and annual weather conditions. 250 m MODIS imagery is utilized as the main input to the PBC algorithm and displays promising capacity in crop identification in several counties in the Central Valley. A time series of Landsat TM/ETM+ images at a 30 m resolution is necessary in the crop mapping of counties with smaller land parcels, although the processing time is longer. Spectral characteristics are also employed to identify crops in PBC. Spectral signatures are associated with phenological stages instead of imaging dates, which highly increases the stability of the classifier performance and overcomes the problem of over-fitting. Moderate accuracies are achieved by PBC, with confusions mostly within the same crop categories. Based on a quantitative analysis, misclassification in PBC has very trivial impacts on the accuracy of agricultural water use estimate. The cost of the entire PBC procedure is controlled to a very low level, which will enable its usage in routine annual crop mapping in the Central Valley.

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