Atzberger, C; Rembold, F (2013). Mapping the Spatial Distribution of Winter Crops at Sub-Pixel Level Using AVHRR NDVI Time Series and Neural Nets. REMOTE SENSING, 5(3), 1335-1354.
For large areas, it is difficult to assess the spatial distribution and inter-annual variation of crop acreages through field surveys. Such information, however, is of great value for governments, land managers, planning authorities, commodity traders and environmental scientists. Time series of coarse resolution imagery offer the advantage of global coverage at low costs, and are therefore suitable for large-scale crop type mapping. Due to their coarse spatial resolution, however, the problem of mixed pixels has to be addressed. Traditional hard classification approaches cannot be applied because of sub-pixel heterogeneity. We evaluate neural networks as a modeling tool for sub-pixel crop acreage estimation. The proposed methodology is based on the assumption that different cover type proportions within coarse pixels prompt changes in time profiles of remotely sensed vegetation indices like the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Neural networks can learn the relation between temporal NDVI signatures and the sought crop acreage information. This learning step permits a non-linear unmixing of the temporal information provided by coarse resolution satellite sensors. For assessing the feasibility and accuracy of the approach, a study region in central Italy (Tuscany) was selected. The task consisted of mapping the spatial distribution of winter crops abundances within 1 km AVHRR pixels between 1988 and 2001. Reference crop acreage information for network training and validation was derived from high resolution Thematic Mapper/Enhanced Thematic Mapper (TM/ETM+) images and official agricultural statistics. Encouraging results were obtained demonstrating the potential of the proposed approach. For example, the spatial distribution of winter crop acreage at sub-pixel level was mapped with a cross-validated coefficient of determination of 0.8 with respect to the reference information from high resolution imagery. For the eight years for which reference information was available, the root mean squared error (RMSE) of winter crop acreage at sub-pixel level was 10%. When combined with current and future sensors, such as MODIS and Sentinel-3, the unmixing of AVHRR data can help in the building of an extended time series of crop distributions and cropping patterns dating back to the 80s.