Ozdogan, M, Woodcock, CE (2006). Resolution dependent errors in remote sensing of cultivated areas. REMOTE SENSING OF ENVIRONMENT, 103(2), 203-217.

Remote sensing has become a common and effective method for estimating the areal coverage of land cover classes. One class of particular interest is agriculture as area estimates of cultivated lands are important for purposes such as estimating yields or irrigation needs. The synoptic coverage of satellite imagery and the relative ease of automated analysis have led to widespread mapping of agriculture using remote sensing. The accuracy of area estimates derived from these maps is known to be related to the accuracy of the maps. However, even in the situation where the map is very accurate, errors in area estimates may occur. These errors result from the behavior of the distribution of subpixel proportions of cultivated areas, and how that behavior changes as a result of sensor spatial resolution and class definitions. The sensitivity of estimates of cultivated areas to sensor spatial resolution and to the choice of threshold used to define cultivated land is explored in six agriculturally distinct locations around the world. Using a beta model for the distribution of subpixel proportions that is parameterized using variograms, it is possible to model the distribution of subpixel proportions for any spatial resolution. When the spatial resolution is small with respect to the spatial structure of the landscape (as measured by the variogram range) use of any class definition threshold produces an estimate very close to the true area coverage. On the other hand, as the resolution becomes coarse in relation to the variogram range, the subpixel proportions are no longer concentrated at the extremes of the distribution and the difference between the estimated and the true area has greater sensitivity to the selected threshold used to define classes. Thus, for the cases examined here, both the resolution and the class definition threshold have a strong influence on area estimates. The spatial resolutions where errors can be large depend on landscape spatial structure, which can be quantified using variograms. The net effect is that for the same spatial resolution, some places will exhibit much larger errors in area estimates than others. For the site in the Anhui province of China, where agricultural fields are very small (0.07 ha on the average), area estimates are highly sensitive to class definition thresholds even at the relatively fine resolution of 45 in. Conversely, in California (USA) spatial resolutions as coarse as 500 m can be used to reliably estimate cultivated areas. Results also suggest that the proportion of the total area that is cultivated significantly influences the accuracy of area estimates. When the area proportion is low, the class definition threshold must also be low to achieve an accurate area estimate. Conversely, in areas dominated by agriculture, a very stringent class definition of cultivated lands is required for accurate area estimates. While explored in the context of estimation of cultivated areas, the findings presented here are generic to the problem of area estimation using remote sensing. (c) 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.