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The USGS Land Cover Institute (LCI)

National Land Cover Data: Mapping Procedures

Version 05-25-99
(Updated: December, 1998; May, 1999)


This land cover data set was produced by the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) as part of a cooperative project between the USGS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to produce a consistent, land cover data layer for the conterminous U.S. based on 30-meter Landsat thematic mapper (TM) data. National Land Cover Data (NLCD) was developed from TM data acquired by the Multi-resolution Land Characterization (MRLC) Consortium. The MRLC Consortium is a partnership of federal agencies that produce or use land cover data. Partners include the USGS (National Mapping, Biological Resources, and Water Resources Divisions), USEPA, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Projection Information:

The initial Landsat TM mosaics, all ancillary data sets, and the land cover product are all map-registered to an Albers Conical Equal Area projection.

Projection: Albers Conical Equal Area
Datum: NAD83
Spheroid: GRS80
Standard Parallels: 29.5 degrees North Latitude
45.5 degrees North Latitude
Central Meridian: 96 degrees West Longitude
Origin of the Projection: 23 degrees North Latitude
False Easting: 0 meters
False Northing: 0 meters

NOTE: Each state data set was extracted from a larger regional data set. State boundaries from the USGS 1:100,000 Digital Line Graph (DLG) series were used as the basis for extracting the state data. In many instances, the precision of the boundaries in the 1:100,000 DLG data does not match the spatial precision of the Landsat TM data. This is most apparent where state boundaries follow small rivers. To overcome the possibility of data being lost in the extraction process, a 300 meter (10 pixel) buffer was added to the state boundary used to extract the state data.

Data Sources:

The base data set for this project was leaves-off Landsat TM data, nominal-1992 acquisitions. Other ancillary data layers included leaves-on TM, USGS 3-arc second Digital Terrain Elevation Data (DTED) and derived slope, aspect and shaded relief, Bureau of the Census population and housing density data, USGS land use and land cover (LUDA), and National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) data if available. Consult each state "readme" file for a listing of specific Landsat TM scenes and ancillary data used to derive the state land cover data set.

General Procedures

Land Cover Characterization:

The project is being carried out on the basis of 10 Federal Regions that make up the conterminous United States; each region is comprised of multiple states; each region is processed in sub-regional units that are limited to the area covered by no more than 18 Landsat TM scenes. The general NLCD procedure is to: (1) mosaic sub-regional TM scenes and classify them using an unsupervised clustering algorithm, (2) interpret and label the clusters/classes using aerial photographs as reference data, (3) resolve the labeling of confused clusters/classes using the appropriate ancillary data source(s), and (4) incorporate land cover information from other data sets and perform manual edits to augment and refine the "basic" classification developed above.

Two seasonally distinct TM mosaics are produced, a leaves-on version (summer) and a leaves-off (spring/fall) version. TM bands 3 4 5 and 7 are mosaicked for both the leaves-on and leaves-off versions. For mosaicking purposes, a base scene is selected for each mosaic and the other scenes are adjusted to mimic spectral properties of the base scene using histogram matching in regions of spatial overlap.

Following mosaicking, either the leaves-off version or leaves-on version is selected to be the "base" for the land cover mapping process. The 4 TM bands of the "base" mosaic are clustered to produce a single 100-class image using an unsupervised clustering algorithm. Each of the spectrally distinct clusters/classes is then assigned to one or more Anderson level 1 and 2 land cover classes using National High Altitude Photography program (NHAP) and National Aerial Photography program (NAPP) aerial photographs as a reference. Almost invariably, individual spectral clusters/classes are confused between two or more land cover classes.

Separation of the confused spectral clusters/classes into appropriate NLCD class is accomplished using ancillary data layers. Standard ancillary data layers include: the "non-base" mosaic TM bands and 100-class cluster image; derived TM normalized vegetation index (NDVI), various TM band ratios, TM date bands; 3-arc second Digital Terrain Elevation Data (DTED) and derived slope, aspect and shaded relief; population and housing density data; USGS land use and land cover (LUDA); and National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) data if available. Other ancillary data sources may include soils data, unique state or regional land cover data sets, or data from other federal programs such as the National Gap Analysis Program (GAP) of the USGS Biological Resources Division (BRD). For a given confused spectral cluster/class, digital values of the various ancillary data layers are compared to determine: (1) which data layers are the most effective for splitting the confused cluster/class into the appropriate NLCD class, and (2) the appropriate layer thresholds for making the split(s). Models are then developed using one to several ancillary data layers to split the confused cluster/class into the NLCD class. For example, a population density threshold is used to separate high-intensity residential areas from commercial/industrial/transportation. Or a cluster/class might be confused between row crop and grasslands. To split this particular cluster/class, a TM NDVI threshold might be identified and used with an elevation threshold in a class-splitting model to make the appropriate NLCD class assignments. A purely spectral example is using the temporally opposite TM layers to discriminate confused cluster/classes such as hay pasture vs. row crops and deciduous forests vs. evergreen forests; simple thresholds that contrast the seasonal differences in vegetation between leaves-on vs. leaves-off.

Not all cluster/class confusion can be successfully modeled out. Certain classes such as urban/recreational grasses or quarries/strip mines/gravel pits that are not spectrally unique require manual editing. These class features are typically visually identified and then reclassified using on-screen digitizing and re-coding. Other classes such as wetlands require the use of specific data sets such as NWI to provide the most accurate classification. Areas lacking NWI data are typically subset out and modeling is used to estimate wetlands in these localized areas. The final NLCD product results from the classification (interpretation and labeling) of the 100-class "base" cluster mosaic using both automated and manual processes, incorporating both spectral and conditional data layers. For a more detailed explanation please see Vogelmann et al. 1998 and Vogelmann et al. 1998.

Accuracy Assessment:

An accuracy assessment is done on all NLCD on a Federal Region basis following a revision cycle that incorporates feedback from MRLC Consortium partners and affiliated users. The accuracy assessments are conducted by private sector vendors under contract to the USEPA. A protocol has been established by the USGS and USEPA that incorporates a two-stage, geographically stratified cluster sampling plan (Zhu et al., 1999) utilizing National Aerial Photography Program (NAPP) photographs as the sampling frame and the basic sampling unit. In this design a NAPP photograph is defined as a 1st stage or primary sampling unit (PSU), and a sampled pixel within each PSU is treated as a 2nd stage or secondary sampling unit (SSU).

PSU's are selected from a sampling grid based on NAPP flight-lines and photo centers, each grid cell measures 15' X 15' (minutes of latitude/longitude) and consists of 32 NHAP photographs. A geographically stratified random sampling is performed with 1 NAPP photo being randomly selected from each cell (geographic strata), if a sampled photo falls outside of the regional boundary it is not used. Second stage sampling is accomplished by selecting SSU's (pixels) within each PSU (NAPP photo) to provide the actual locations for the reference land cover classification.

The SSU's are manually interpreted and misclassification errors are estimated and described using a traditional error matrix as well as a number of other important measures including the overall proportion of pixels correctly classified, user's and producer's accuracy, and omission and commission error probabilities.


While we believe that the approach taken has yielded a very good general land cover classification product for a large region, it is important to indicate to the user where there might be some potential problems. The biggest concerns are listed below:

1) Some of the TM data sets are not temporally ideal. Leaves-off data sets are heavily relied upon for discriminating between hay/pasture and row crop, and also for discriminating between forest classes. The success of discriminating between these classes using leaves-off data sets hinges on the time of data acquisition. When hay/pasture areas are non-green, they are not easily distinguishable from other agricultural areas using remotely sensed data. However, there is a temporal window during which hay and pasture areas green-up before most other vegetation (excluding evergreens, which have different spectral properties); during this window these areas are easily distinguishable from other crop areas. The discrimination between hay/pasture and deciduous forest is likewise optimized by selecting data in a temporal window where deciduous vegetation has yet to leaf out. It is difficult to acquire a single-date of imagery (leaves-on or leaves-off) that adequately differentiates between both deciduous/hay and pasture and hay-pasture/row crop.

2) The data sets used cover a range of years (see data sources), and changes that have taken place across the landscape over the time period may not have been captured. While this is not viewed as a major problem for most classes, it is possible that some land cover features change more rapidly than might be expected (e.g. hay one year, row crop the next).

3) Wetlands classes are extremely difficult to extract from Landsat TM spectral information alone. The use of ancillary information such as National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) data is highly desirable. We relied on GAP, LUDA, or proximity to streams and rivers as well as spectral data to delineate wetlands in areas without NWI data.

4) Separation of natural grass and shrub is problematic. Areas observed on the ground to be shrub or grass are not always distinguishable spectrally. Likewise, there was often disagreement between LUDA and GAP on these classes.

State-Specific Caveats and Concerns:

We believe that the approach taken has yielded a very good general land cover classification product for a very large region. Each state readme file contains a listing of specific concerns for each state.


This work was performed by the Raytheon STX Corporation under U.S. Geological Survey Contract 1434-CR-97-CN-40274.


More detailed information on the methodologies and techniques employed in this work can be found in the following:

Kelly, P.M., and White, J.M., 1993. Preprocessing remotely sensed data for efficient analysis and classification, Applications of Artificial Intelligence 1993: Knowledge-Based Systems in Aerospace and Industry, Proceeding of SPIE, 1993, 24-30.

Cowardin, L.M., V. Carter, F.C. Golet, and E.T. LaRoe, 1979. Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Vogelmann, J.E., Sohl, T., and Howard, S.M., 1998. "Regional Characterization of Land Cover Using Multiple Sources of Data." Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing, Vol. 64, No. 1, pp. 45-47.

Vogelmann, J.E., Sohl, T., Campbell, P.V., and Shaw, D.M., 1998. "Regional Land Cover Characterization Using Landsat Thematic Mapper Data and Ancillary Data Sources." Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, Vol. 51, pp. 415-428.

Zhu, Z., Yang, L., Stehman, S., and Czaplewski, R., 1999. "Designing an Accuracy Assessment for USGS Regional Land Cover Mapping Program." (In review) Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing.

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