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ECV T9 Land Cover
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Land cover concerns the spatial distribution of physical cover including vegetation types and human uses of land for living, agriculture and forestry, and commercial space.

Land cover affects and is affected by global climate change in important ways. First, the interaction of land cover and the atmosphere causes a regulation of the hydrologic cycle and energy budget, which makes it necessary for weather and climate prediction. Land cover also plays a major role in the carbon cycle by acting as a source and a sink of carbon. Deforestation, aforestation, and re-growth cause the release and sequestering of carbon, thereby affecting atmospheric CO2 concentration and the strength of the greenhouse effect (GCOS 2004, Masek 2001). Also, because regional climate conditions are a main determinant of vegetation types, changes in vegetation and land cover may indicate that climate change is occurring (GCOS 2004). Finally, land cover is a useful indicator because many climate-related variables that are difficult to measure at the global level, such as surface roughness, can be inferred in part from vegetation and land surface types; thus, land cover can be used to infer other important climate variables (GCOS 2003).

As a subset of the land cover variable, monitoring of land cover change is necessary for understanding the extent and severity of anthropogenic and natural changes occurring. Land cover changes may be grouped into one of two broad categories: conversion or modification. Conversion refers to the change from one cover type to another, such as conversion of forests to pasture land. Modification refers to the maintenance of the same cover type while changes to its attributes are occurring. For instance, a forested area may be retained as forest while major impacts to its structure or function, such as those involving biomass or productivity, occur (LUCC 1997).

Land cover products have historically been developed according to specific project needs, with methods and results generally not compatible across different land cover schemes. This tendency has resulted in the development of remote sensing datasets and methods that are difficult to compare, both spatially and temporally. (Homer 2004) With regard to land cover change, the monitoring process requires the existence of (reasonably) reliable maps and datasets to construct a time series for land cover over a particular area. Traditional cartography provides some historical context, but because many of these land cover products have not been properly archived and transferred into electronic format, it is difficult to construct an accurate time series.

Historic background

Land cover has been identified as a terrestrial essential climatic variable in the original GCOS implementation plan and adequacy reports.

Information on the requirements and status of the land cover ECV which have already been submitted to the UNFCCC is summarized in the following document 73kb, v01, 22 June 2007

ECV land cover standards report

GTOS is currently assessing the status of the development of standards for each of the essential climate variables in the terrestrial domain, as requested by UNFCCC SBSTA/COP for its 23rd Session in Montreal, November 2005. The following report, documentation and other resources have been compiled for land cover. We welcome your comments and inputs in improving and completing the analysis for biomass. Please send any material and comments to the GTOS Secretariat.


Download report PDF, 1.35 Mb, 1 November 2009


Listed below are the major references that have been identified in regards to methodology and standards for land cover. Please inform us if you are aware of any other documentation or material which could be considered.

CEOS Earth Observation Plans, Surface temperature (land). ECV-T9-landcover-ref22

CEOS Earth Observation Plans, Multipurpose imagery (land). ECV-T9-landcover-ref23

Ciais, Ph. et al. Integrated Global Carbon Observation Theme: A Strategy to Realize a Coordinated System of Integrated Global Carbon Cycle Observations. Version 10. ECV-T9-landcover-ref24

Cohen, W.B., T.K. Maiersperger, T.A. Spies, D.R. Oetter. Modelling forest cover attributes as continuous variables in a regional context with Thematic Mapper data. International Journal of Remote Sensing, 2001, 22(12): 2279-2310. ECV-T9-landcover-ref16-Cohen

FAO. 2005. Land Cover Classification System: Classification concepts and user manual. Environment and Natural Resources Series. No. 8. Rome. ECV-T9-landcover-ref25

Global Climate Observing System. 2003. 2nd Report on Adequacy of Global Observation Systems. GCOS-82, WMO/TD No. 1143. , 85 pp. ECV-T9-landcover-ref02

Global Climate Observing System. 2004. Implementation Plan for the Global Observing System for Climate in Support of the UNFCCC. WMO/TD No. 1219.

Hansen, M.C. and B. Reed. 2000. A comparison of the IGBP DISCover and University of Maryland 1 km global land cover products. International Journal of Remote Sensing, 21(6 & 7): 1365-1373. ECV-T9-landcover-ref14

Herold, M., Latham, J.S, Di Gregorio, A, and Schmullius, C.C. 2006. Evolving standards in land cover characterization. Journal of Land Use Science. Journal of Land Use Science, 1(2-4): 157-168. ECV-T9-landcover-ref17

Homer, Collin, Chengquan Huang, Limin Yang, Bruce Wylie, and Michael Coan. 2004. Development of a 2001 National Land-Cover Database for the United States. Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing, 70(7): 829-840. ECV-T9-landcover-ref05

Integrated Global Observing Strategy Partnership. 2004. Integrated Global Observations of the Land – A proposed theme to the IGOS-Partnership-Version 2. IGOS-P 11 Doc., Item 7.1., 11pp. ECV-T9-landcover-ref10

LUCC Data Requirement Workshop: Survey of needs, gaps and priorities on data for land use/land cover change research, LUCC Report Series No.3, Organised by IGBP/IHDP-LUCC and IGBP-DIS, Barcelona, Spain, 11-14 Nov. 1997, 143 pp. ECV-T9-landcover-ref18

Masek, Jeffrey G., Mark Friedl, Thomas Loveland, Eric Brown de Colstoun, John Townsend, Matthew Hansen, K. Jon Ranson. Land Cover/ Land Cover Change ESDR. ECV-T9-landcover-ref04

NASA. Earth Observatory Glossary. ECV-T9-landcover-ref07

NASA. The Earth Science Technology Integrated Planning System (ESTIPS).

Panigrahy, S., Chakraborty, M., Sharma, S.A., Kundu, N., Ghose, S.C., and Pal, M. 1997. Early estimation of rice area using temporal ERS-1 synthetic aperture radar data – a case study for the Howrah and Hughly districts of West Bengal, India. International Journal of Remote Sensing, 18(8): 1827-1833. ECV-T9-landcover-ref20

Scott, G., Klaric, M., and Shyu, Chi-Ren. 2005. Modeling Multi-object Spatial Relationships for Satellite Image Database Indexing and Retrieval. Chapter in Leow, W.K. et al. (Eds.), Image and Video Retrieval, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 247-256. ECV-T9-landcover-ref21

Skole, D.L., W.A. Salas, and V. Taylor. 1998. Global Observation of Forest Cover: Fine Resolution Data and Product Design Strategy, Report of a Workshop. GTOS. GOFC-GOLD Report No. 4. Paris, France. ECV-T9-landcover-ref12

Strahler, Alan H., et al. 2006. Global Land Cover Validation: Recommendations for Evaluation and Accuracy Assessment of Global Land Cover Maps. European Communities, Luxembourg. ECV-T9-landcover-ref15

TEMS variable database. ECV-T9-landcover-ref09

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 2006. Proposal for possible revision of the UNFCCC reporting guidelines on global climate change observing systems: Submission from the Global Climate Observing System secretariat. Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 12 September 2006. ECV-T9-landcover-ref03

Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium, National Land Cover Database 2001 (NLCD 2001). ECV-T9-landcover-ref26

Van, Tran Thi. Relationship Between Surface Temperature and Land Cover Types Using Thermal Infrared Remote Sensing, in Case of HoChiMinh City. Institute for Environment and Resources, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City.

Varlyguin, Dmitry L., Robb K. Wright, Scott J. Goetz, Stephen D. Prince. 2001. Advances in land cover classification for applications research: a case study from the mid-Atlantic Resac. ECV-T9-landcover-ref11

Relevant Web links

Listed below are links relevant to land cover measurements. New links are welcome:

Center for Tropical Forest Service
Chinese Ecosystem Research Network
Chinese Forest Ecosystem Research Network
Committee on Earth Observation Satellites
Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS), United States Geological Survey
Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network
European Network for long-term Forest Ecosystem and Landscape Research
European Space Agency
Global Land Cover Facility
Global Observing System Information Center, Global Change Master Directory Portal
Global Observation System Information Center, Land Surface, Land Cover
International Cooperative Programme on Integrated Monitoring of Air Pollution Effects on Ecosystems
Integrated Global Observing Strategy, Integrated Global Carbon Observation
International Long Term Ecological Research
Land Cover Institute, United States Geological Survey
Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium
Universität Jena, Institute for Geography
University of Maryland, College Park, Department of Geography
US Long Term Ecological Research

TEMS variables and T-sites

The Terrestrial Ecosystem Monitoring Sites (TEMS) database contains details on ecological variables and research sites which are undertaking ecological measurements.


We would like to thank the following individuals for having provided inputs and comments to this ECV report.

. Sophia Mintier, NRC, FAO

. Josef Cihlar
. Martin Herold, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany


We welcome your inputs, comments and queries. Please send feedback to the GTOS Secretariat.

The above activities are part of Task Number CL-06-03 of the GEOSS implementation plan of GEO.

T1-River | T2-Water Use  | T3-Ground Water | T4-Lake | T5-Snow | T6-Galciers |
T7-Frost | T8-Albedo | T9-Land | T10-fAPAR | T11-LAI | T12-Biomass | T13-Fire |
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© FAO   ::   Global Terrestrial Observing System - GTOS   ::   11 November 2009