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The USGS has again deployed its decades of experience in land cover mapping with the release of the latest version of the National Land Cover Database (NLCD), the definitive land cover database for the United States.

NLCD 2021 is primarily based on 30-meter resolution Landsat satellite data. The NLCD has been one of the most widely used geospatial datasets with 12,000 plus research citations serving as a basis for understanding the nation’s landscapes in thousands of studies and applications. It is trusted by scientists, land managers, college students, city planners, and many others.

National Land Cover Database (NLCD) 2021: Conterminous U.S. Land Cover
Map of the conterminous United States showing the Land Cover layer from the NLCD 2021. 

For the conterminous United States, NLCD 2021 builds on the tradition of six earlier releases, starting with NLCD 1992. The historic debut in 1992 provided the most detailed data ever collected for a national land cover program. NLCD 2001 was later developed as a database with additional detail about forest canopy cover and impervious surfaces and was released with a revised 16-class land cover structure more closely aligned with remote sensing characteristics. Subsequent NLCD releases were mapped at directly comparable five-year intervals and eventually moved to two- to three-year intervals starting with the 2016 release, which also included expanded science products. All releases were developed with continual improvements in methodology and accuracy to allow for land cover change, analysis, and disturbance mapping throughout the past two decades.

The USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center produces NLCD products in association with the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics (MRLC) Consortium, a partnership of federal agencies that coordinates and generates consistent and relevant land cover information at the national scale for a wide variety of environmental, land management, and modeling applications. When the MRLC formed more than 30 years ago, a key goal was the production of a national 30-meter resolution land cover database, which has been fulfilled many times over.

The Future of USGS Land Cover

USGS EROS, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is also experiencing a land cover revolution. NLCD 2021 is the final traditional NLCD land cover product being released before the USGS releases the next generation of land cover products in 2024, resulting from a collaboration between NLCD and another premier land cover program based at USGS EROS, Land Cover Monitoring Assessment and Projection (LCMAP).

Both programs have made extensive use of high-performance computing (HPC) environments utilizing artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) algorithms for previous releases. Those advancements substantially reduced production time for the NLCD 2021 release. The first product release from the new program in 2024 will build on previous HPC work and transition exclusively to the cloud environment for production. Landcover products from the first release will include similar land cover classes found in NLCD with annual products for the years 1985-2023—using the Landsat archive.

“I’m very much looking forward to yearly land cover products and seeing some of the trends and new insights we can learn from that data. That’s going to be very exciting,” said NLCD Acting Project Manager Jon Dewitz of USGS EROS.

“A lot of the early mapping efforts led EROS to have an incredibly strong science department and to perform work that is strongly rooted in user requirements where we focus on transparency, repeatability, robust accuracy assessment, and continuous improvement of land cover mapping and monitoring,” said Jesslyn Brown of USGS EROS, who leads LCMAP.

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