The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Cropland Data Layer (CDL) provides spatially explicit information about crop production area and has served as a prevalent data source for characterizing cropland change in the U.S. in the last decade. Understanding the accuracy of the CDL is paramount because of the reliance on it for management and policy making. This study examined the characteristics of the CDL from 2007 to 2017 using comparisons to other USDA datasets. The results showed when examining the cropland area for the same year, the CDL produced comparable trends with other datasets (R2
> 0.95), but absolute area differed. The estimated area of cropland changes from 2007 to 2012, 2008 to 2012 and 2012 to 2017 varied from weak to moderate correlation between the CDL and the tabular data (R2
= 0.005~0.63). Differences in area of cropland change varied widely between data sources with the CDL estimating much larger change area. A series of image processing techniques designed to improve the confidence in cropland change estimated using the CDL reduced the area of estimated cropland change. The techniques also, unexpectedly, lowered the correlation in change estimated between the CDL and the tabular datasets. Estimated land cover change area varied widely based on analyses applied and could reverse from increasing to declining area in cropland. Further analyses showed unlikely change scenarios when comparing different year combinations. The authors recommend the CDL only be used for land cover change analysis if the error can be estimated and is within change estimates.
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