Using Landsat and Sentinel-2 spectral time series to detect East African small woodlots

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Accurate maps of gains in tree cover are necessary to quantify carbon storage, wildlife habitat, and land use changes. Satellite-based mapping of emerging smallholder woodlots in heterogeneous landscapes of sub-Saharan Africa is challenging. Our goal was to evaluate the use of time series to detect and map small woodlots (<1 ha) in Tanzania. We distinguished woodlots from other land cover types by woodlots’ distinct multi-year spectral time series. Woodlots exhibit greening from planting to maturity followed by browning at harvest. We compared two time series approaches: 1) a linear model of Tasseled Cap Wetness (TCW) and other indices, and 2) LandTrendr temporal segmentation metrics. The approaches had equivalent woodlot detection accuracy, but LandTrendr segments had lower accuracy for characterizing woodlot age. We tested the effect of the following factors on woodlot detection and mapping accuracy: the length of the time series (2009–2019), frequency of observations (all Landsat vs. only Landsat-8), spatial resolution (30-m Landsat vs. 10-m Sentinel-2), and woodlot age and size. Woodlot mapping accuracies were higher with longer time series (54% at 3-yrs vs 77% at 7-yrs). The accuracies also improved with more observations, especially when the time series was short (3-yrs Landsat-8 only: 54% vs. all-Landsat: 64%, p-value <0.001). Sentinel-2’s higher spatial resolution minimized commission errors even for short time series. Finally, less than half of young and small (<0.4 ha) woodlots were detected, suggesting considerable omission errors in our and other woodlot maps. Our results suggest that the accurate detection of woodlots is possible by analyzing multi-year time series of Landsat and Sentinel-2 data. Given the region’s woodlot boom, accurate maps are needed to better quantify woodlots’ contribution to carbon sequestration, livelihoods enhancement, and landscape management.