Zooming in on Europe: a new, high-resolution land cover map


Scientists at the CBK PAN have developed a fast new method to automatically classify land cover at high resolution. A prototype map of Europe has just been released under a contract with the European Space Agency.

The new map shows land cover in Europe in 2017. Thirteen of the most important classes are highlighted, including agricultural areas, forests (both deciduous and coniferous), built-up areas, marshes and peatbogs. Fifteen thousand images from Sentinel-2 satellites were processed. With a spatial resolution of 10 meters per pixel, the new dataset is 2,500 times more detailed than the existing CORINE land cover inventory. Moreover, as production was fully automated, it took six weeks to generate – compared to 18 months for CORINE.

S2GLC Land Cover map in Europe. Credits: CBK PAN

The new method was developed by Earth Observation scientists from the CBK PAN (space research institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences). “We adopted a machine learning approach to deal with the huge number of observations. First, the algorithm was supplied with reference data from low-resolution databases. Next, it learned – on its own – how to discriminate between individual land cover types” said Professor Stanisław Lewiński, the project’s principal investigator. Researchers tested their approach on maps of China, Colombia, Namibia, Germany and Italy, before eventually applying it to the generation of a new land cover map for the whole of Europe.

The biggest challenge proved to be the reliability and applicability of reference data. Typically, the algorithm is trained with data that is at least as detailed as the resulting map. However, global databases provide information that is several dozen times less precise. “We were forced to rely on data that was much more uncertain than we anticipated, so we had to come up with a robust analytical scheme. Eventually,  we reached 86–89% accuracy on the European scale”,said Lewiński. Accuracy is even higher for individual countries: 93% for Poland, 96% for Germany, 91% for Finland, and 93% for Croatia and Slovenia.

S2GLC Land Cover map in Poland. Credits: CBK PAN

A key factor in the project’s success was the nature of satellite data. Images come from the two Sentinel-2 satellites launched in 2015/2017 under the European Copernicus program. Working in tandem, the pair fly over Europe every 5 days. This frequent revisit allowed the Polish team to classify land cover anywhere in Europe multiple times, based on the 20 best annual acquisitions. The aggregation of observations not only resulted in a highly-accurate map, but also solved the biggest problem in satellite imagery – cloud cover.

Work was carried out as part of the three-year Sentinel-2 Global Land Cover (S2GLC) project, funded by the European Space Agency under the Scientific Exploitation of Operational Missions  initiative. The CBK PAN scientists developed the classification scheme and software. The consortium of international partners includes IABG, EOEXPLOR and the University of Jena in Germany. Detailed calculations were carried out by CloudFerro, operator of the CreoDIAS platform.

The map itself can be accessed (for free) at: https://finder.creodias.eu (the S2GLC collection).


About the institute: The Centrum Badań Kosmicznych Polskiej Akademii Nauk (CBK PAN) is a space research institute within the Polish Academy of Sciences. It is active in the fields of astronomy, Earth sciences and space engineering. Established in 1976, it is the largest such institute in Poland. Over the past 40 years, it has designed, manufactured and launched over 70 instruments into space. These instruments have been orbiting the Earth, the Sun, the Moon, Venus, Mars and exploring the Universe. CBK PAN detectors have probed Titan’s atmosphere, chased Halley’s Comet, and landed on another comet (during the Rosetta mission). Ongoing and future missions include: BepiColombo (Europe’s first mission to Mercury), the InSight Mars Lander, the Trace Gas Orbiter, the Solar Orbiter satellite, Euclid (an ESA mission to map the geometry of the Universe), IMAP, Athena, ARIEL, the Comet Interceptor, along with multiple payloads onboard the International Space Station. The Institute’s engineers are actively involved in the analysis of satellite data, including the use of Earth observations for scientific applications and user-oriented services (e.g. land use/ cover or crisis management).

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