Research article

Automated detection of individual Juniper tree location and forest cover changes using Google Earth Engine

Sudeera Wickramarathna, Jamon Van Den Hoek, Bogdan Mihai Strimbu

Sudeera Wickramarathna
Oregon State University
Jamon Van Den Hoek
Oregon State University
Bogdan Mihai Strimbu
Oregon State University. Email:

Online First: June 28, 2021
Wickramarathna, S., Van Den Hoek, J., Strimbu, B. 2021. Automated detection of individual Juniper tree location and forest cover changes using Google Earth Engine. Annals of Forest Research DOI:10.15287/afr.2020.2145

Tree detection is the first step in the appraisal of a forest, especially when the focus is monitoring the growth of tree canopy. The acquisition of annual very high-resolution aerial images by the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) and their accessibility through Google Earth Engine (GEE) supports the delineation of tree canopies and change over time in a cost and time-effective manner. The objectives of this study are to develop an automated method to detect the crowns of individual western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) trees and to assess the change of forest cover from multispectral 1-meter resolution NAIP images collected from 2009 to 2016, in Oregon, USA. The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI), and Ratio Vegetation Index (RVI), were calculated from the NAIP images, in addition to the red-green-blue-near infrared bands. To identify the most suitable approach for individual tree crown identification, we created two training datasets: one considering yearly images separately and one merging all images, irrespective of the year. We segmented individual tree crowns using a random forest algorithm implemented in GEE and seven rasters, namely the reflectance of four spectral bands as recorded by the NAIP images (i.e., the red-green-blue-near infrared) and three calculated indices (i.e., NDVI, NDWI, and RVI). We compared the estimated location of the trees, computed as the centroid of the crown, with the visually identified treetops, which were considered as validation locations. We found that tree location errors were smaller when years were analyzed individually than by merging the years. Measurements of completeness (74%), correctness (94%), and mean accuracy detection (82 %) show promising performance of the random forest algorithm in crown delineation, considering that only four original input bands were used for crown segmentation. The change in the calculated crown area for western juniper follows a sinusoidal curve, with a decrease from 2011 to 2012 and an increase from 2012 to 2014. The proposed approach has the potential to estimate individual tree locations and forest cover area dynamics at broad spatial scales using regularly collected airborne imagery with easy-to-implement methods.

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  • Sudeera Wickramarathna
  • Jamon Van Den Hoek
  • Bogdan Mihai Strimbu
  • Sudeera Wickramarathna
  • Jamon Van Den Hoek
  • Bogdan Mihai Strimbu