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High-resolution mapping of global surface water and its long-term changes


The location and persistence of surface water (inland and coastal) is both affected by climate and human activity1 and affects climate2,3, biological diversity4 and human wellbeing5,6. Global data sets documenting surface water location and seasonality have been produced from inventories and national descriptions7, statistical extrapolation of regional data8 and satellite imagery9,10,11,12, but measuring long-term changes at high resolution remains a challenge. Here, using three million Landsat satellite images13, we quantify changes in global surface water over the past 32 years at 30-metre resolution. We record the months and years when water was present, where occurrence changed and what form changes took in terms of seasonality and persistence. Between 1984 and 2015 permanent surface water has disappeared from an area of almost 90,000 square kilometres, roughly equivalent to that of Lake Superior, though new permanent bodies of surface water covering 184,000 square kilometres have formed elsewhere. All continental regions show a net increase in permanent water, except Oceania, which has a fractional (one per cent) net loss. Much of the increase is from reservoir filling, although climate change14 is also implicated. Loss is more geographically concentrated than gain. Over 70 per cent of global net permanent water loss occurred in the Middle East and Central Asia, linked to drought and human actions including river diversion or damming and unregulated withdrawal15,16. Losses in Australia17 and the USA18 linked to long-term droughts are also evident. This globally consistent, validated data set shows that impacts of climate change and climate oscillations on surface water occurrence can be measured and that evidence can be gathered to show how surface water is altered by human activities. We anticipate that this freely available data will improve the modelling of surface forcing, provide evidence of state and change in wetland ecotones (the transition areas between biomes), and inform water-management decision-making.

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Figure 1: Different facets of surface water dynamics.
Figure 2: Global surface water distribution and changes.
Figure 3: Trends in annual permanent water surface area.
Figure 4: Surface water changes for the Aral Sea and Tibetan plateau.


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The USGS and NASA provided the Landsat imagery. R. Moore and her team provided the Google Earth Engine. R. Sargent and P. Dille from Carnegie Mellon University built the web interface to the global surface water occurrence maps, and M. Clerici and J. van ‘t Klooster built the web processing interface.

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Each author contributed extensively and indispensably to the work presented in this paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jean-François Pekel.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks I. Klein and D. Yamazaki for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Geographic and temporal coverage of the Landsat 5, 7 and 8 L1T archive between 16 March 1984 and 10 October 2015.

a, Total number of unique views. b, First year of imaging. c, Number of scenes per month and year.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 2 Diagram of the expert system classifier.

Extended Data Figure 3 Multispectral feature-space occupied by water and other surfaces.

a, Hue (from SWIR2, NIR, red) versus NDVI. b, Hue versus Value (both from SWIR2, NIR, red). c, Hue versus Saturation (both from SWIR2, NIR, red). d, Hue versus Value (both from NIR, green, blue).

Extended Data Figure 4 Diagram of the validation protocol.

a, Omission error protocol. b, Commission error protocol.

Extended Data Figure 5 Global geographic distribution of validation sample points and error.

Extended Data Figure 6 Mapping the history of surface water occurrence.

a, Examples of increasing surface water occurrence in Myanmar (see inset for regional context). b, Pixel-based temporal profiles showing recurrence by month over 32 years (top), water history by seasonality class and by year over 32 years (middle) and monthly water presence for each year in the water seasonality record, in this case 2011 (bottom). Collectively, the graphs show that at this location (latitude 18.3928°, longitude 96.2633°) there are no valid observations available for the period 1984–1986, in 1993, 1997 or 1998 (the gaps in the middle graph), that before 2011 this was dry land, that the dam formed in 2011 and this point was flooded sometime between April and September (bottom), but since then it has been permanent water (centre), and that in the 32 years of observation water has not been detected in June (no observations have been made in June since the dam filled (top)).

Extended Data Figure 7 Mapping changes in intra-annual persistence (seasonality).

a, Surface water seasonality between October 2014 and October 2015 in the Sundarbans in Bangladesh (see inset). b, Changes in inter-annual persistence between 1984 and 2015. The increase in permanent surface water at the expense of seasonal is indicative of changes in land use from seasonally flooded paddy fields to permanently flooded fishponds.

Extended Data Figure 8 Water transitions map the Parana river.

The regional context is shown in the insets. River channel migration, changes to seasonal water across the floodplain and transitions from permanent to seasonal water (‘New seasonal’) and seasonal to permanent water (‘New permanent’), visible in the figure, are symptomatic of habitat fragmentation and changing ecosystem service delivery.

Extended Data Table 1 Validation results

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-2. (PDF 432 kb)

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Pekel, JF., Cottam, A., Gorelick, N. et al. High-resolution mapping of global surface water and its long-term changes. Nature 540, 418–422 (2016).

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