Land cover

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Land cover is the physical material at the surface of the earth. Land covers include grass, asphalt, trees, bare ground, water, etc. There are two primary methods for capturing information on land cover: field survey and thorough analysis of remotely sensed imagery. The nature of land cover is discussed in Comber et al. (2005).[1]

Land cover surrounding Madison, WI. Fields are colored yellow and brown, water is colored blue, and urban surfaces are colored red.

Land cover is distinct from land use despite the two terms often being used interchangeably. Land use is a description of how people utilize the land and socio-economic activity - urban and agricultural land uses are two of the most commonly recognised high-level classes of use. At any one point or place, there may be multiple and alternate land uses, the specification of which may have a political dimension. The origins of the ‘land cover / land use’ couplet and the implications of their confusion are discussed in Fisher et al. (2005).[2]

One of the major land cover issues (as with all natural resource inventories) is that every survey defines similarly named categories in different ways. For instance, there are many definitions of ‘Forest’, sometimes within the same organisation, that may or may not incorporate a number of different forest features (stand height, canopy cover, strip width, inclusion of grasses, rates of growth for timber production). Areas without trees may be classified as forest cover if the intention is to re-plant (UK and Ireland), areas with many trees may not be labelled as forest if the trees are not growing fast enough (Norway and Finland).

See also


  1. Lex Comber et al. (2005). "What is land cover?". Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design (32): 199–209. 
  2. Pete Fisher et al. (2005). "Land use and Land cover: Contradiction or Complement". in Peter Fisher, David Unwin. Re-Presenting GIS. Chichester: Wiley. pp. 85–98. 

  • Powell, W. Gabe. 2009. Identifying Land Use/Land Cover (LULC) Using National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) Data as a Hydrologic Model Input for Local Flood Plain Management. Applied Research Project. Texas State University - San Marcos.