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Review of studies on tree species classification from remotely sensed data

Fassnacht, Fabian Ewald, Latifi, Hooman, Stereńczak, Krzysztof, Modzelewska, Aneta, Lefsky, Michael, Waser, Lars T., Straub, Christoph, Ghosh, Aniruddha
Remote sensing of environment 2016 v.186 pp. 64-87
algorithms, classification, experimental design, forests, managers, plantations, remote sensing, research, spatial data, species diversity, trees, variance
Spatially explicit information on tree species composition of managed and natural forests, plantations and urban vegetation provides valuable information for nature conservationists as well as for forest and urban managers and is frequently required over large spatial extents. Over the last four decades, advances in remote sensing technology have enabled the classification of tree species from several sensor types.While studies using remote sensing data to classify and map tree species reach back several decades, a recent review on the status, potentials, challenges and outlooks in this realm is missing. Here, we search for major trends in remote sensing techniques for tree species classification and discuss the effectiveness of different sensors and algorithms based on a literature review.This review demonstrates that the number of studies focusing on tree species classification has increased constantly over the last four decades and promising local scale approaches have been presented for several sensor types. However, there are few examples for tree species classifications over large geographic extents, and bridging the gap between current approaches and tree species inventories over large geographic extents is still one of the biggest challenges of this research field. Furthermore, we found only few studies which systematically described and examined the traits that drive the observed variance in the remote sensing signal and thereby enable or hamper species classifications. Most studies followed data-driven approaches and pursued an optimization of classification accuracy, while a concrete hypothesis or a targeted application was missing in all but a few exceptional studies.We recommend that future research efforts focus stronger on the causal understanding of why tree species classification approaches work under certain conditions or – maybe even more important - why they do not work in other cases. This might require more complex field acquisitions than those typically used in the reviewed studies. At the same time, we recommend reducing the number of purely data-driven studies and algorithm-benchmarking studies as these studies are of limited value, especially if the experimental design is limited, e.g. the tree population is not representative and only a few sensors or acquisition settings are simultaneously investigated.