Urbanization is a substantial contributor to anthropogenic environmental change, and often occurs at a rapid pace that demands frequent and accurate monitoring. Time series of satellite imagery collected at fine spatial resolution using stable spectral bands over decades are most desirable for this purpose. In practice, however, temporal spectral variance arising from variations in atmospheric conditions, sensor calibration, cloud cover, and other factors complicates extraction of consistent information on changes in urban land cover. Moreover, the construction and application of effective training samples is time-consuming, especially at continental and global scales. Here, we propose a new framework for satellite-based mapping of urban areas based on transfer learning and deep learning techniques. We apply this method to Landsat observations collected during 1984–2016 and extract annual records of urban areas in four cities in the temperate zone (Beijing, New York, Melbourne, and Munich). The method is trained using observations of Beijing collected in 1999, and then used to map urban areas in all target cities for the entire 1984–2016 period. The method addresses two central challenges in long term detection of urban change: temporal spectral variance and a scarcity of training samples. First, we use a recurrent neural network to minimize seasonal urban spectral variance. Second, we introduce an automated transfer strategy to maximize information gain from limited training samples when applied to new target cities in similar climate zones. Compared with other state-of-the-art methods, our method achieved comparable or even better accuracy: the average change detection accuracy during 1984–2016 is 89% for Beijing, 94% for New York, 93% for Melbourne, and 89% for Munich, and the overall accuracy of single-year urban maps is approximately 96 ± 3% among the four target cities. The results demonstrate the practical potential and suitability of the proposed framework. The method is a promising tool for detecting urban change in massive remote sensing data sets with limited training data.
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