Characterizing multi-decadal, annual land cover change dynamics in Houston, TX based on automated classification of Landsat imagery

<p>In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused substantial loss of life and property in the swiftly urbanizing region of Houston, TX. Now in its wake, researchers are tasked with investigating how to plan for and mitigate the impact of similar events in the future, despite expectations of increased storm intensity and frequency as well as accelerating urbanization trends. Critical to this task is the development of automated workflows for producing accurate and consistent land cover maps of sufficiently fine spatio-temporal resolution over large areas and long timespans. In this study, we developed an innovative automated classification algorithm that overcomes some of the traditional trade-offs between fine spatio-temporal resolution and extent – to produce a multi-scene, 30m annual land cover time series characterizing 21 years of land cover dynamics in the 35,000 km2 Greater Houston area. The ensemble algorithm takes advantage of the synergistic value of employing all acceptable Landsat imagery in a given year, using aggregate votes from the posterior predictive distributions of multiple image composites to mitigate against misclassifications in any one image, and fill gaps due to missing and contaminated data, such as those from clouds and cloud shadows. The procedure is fully automated, combining adaptive signature generalization and spatio-temporal stabilization for consistency across sensors and scenes. The land cover time series is validated using independent, multi-temporal fine-resolution imagery, achieving crisp overall accuracies between 78–86% and fuzzy overall accuracies between 91–94%. Validated maps and corresponding areal cover estimates corroborate what census and economic data from the Greater Houston area likewise indicate: rapid growth from 1997–2017, demonstrated by the conversion of 2,040 km<sup>2</sup> (± 400 km<sup>2</sup>) to developed land cover, 14% of which resulted from the conversion of wetlands. Beyond its implications for urbanization trends in Greater Houston, this study demonstrates the potential for automated approaches to quantifying large extent, fine resolution land cover change, as well as the added value of temporally-dense time series for characterizing higher-order spatio-temporal dynamics of land cover, including periodicity, abrupt transitions, and time lags from underlying demographic and socio-economic trends.</p>