Mapping the world in unprecedented detail

Caitlin Kontgis
3 min readJun 24, 2021


The Esri 2020 Land Cover map, created in partnership with Impact Observatory and Microsoft.

Impact Observatory (IO) is thrilled to share a 2020 land use / land cover (LULC) map of the world, developed with Esri and in partnership with Microsoft AI for Earth. Built using the highest resolution, publicly available satellite data from the European Space Agency, this artificial intelligence powered map provides unprecedented insight into the world’s landscapes. We used a deep learning model to classify hundreds of thousands of satellite images into ten discrete LULC classes, creating an open source dataset that provides global scale understanding of global scale challenges, including conservation planning, resource management, and climate change mitigation.

The Mekong River Delta in southern Vietnam, seen in the 2020 10-m LULC map. Here, you can see dense lines of built area, which are villages built along roads and irrigation canals. The central and northern areas are dominated by rice paddies, while the water further south represents aquaculture ponds.

The IO team evolved out of the Geographic Visualization Lab at National Geographic Society. During that time, our founders led the creation of the largest ever training dataset for medium-resolution Earth observation satellite imagery, generating over 5 billion hand-labeled pixels. Using these labels, we trained a UNet, a convolutional neural network specifically tailored for image segmentation. To get a truly representative look at 2020, we composited model outputs from multiple scenes across the entire year. We ran our model on Sentinel-2 imagery provided by the Microsoft Planetary Computer to generate a map at 10-m resolution, making this the highest resolution global map to ever be publicly released. At 10-m, the 2020 map reveals features previously unseen in global land cover maps; meandering streams, rural villages, and pockets of permanent snowfields all jump to life.

The greater Seattle area, as seen in the 2020 10-m LULC map, is surrounded by the snow capped Cascades. This region is dominated by dense forests, which give way to scrub/shrub in the rain shadow of the mountains, which can be seen in the eastern portion of the image.

Thanks to our partners at Esri and Microsoft, we developed this map in just a few months. Using over a million core hours on Azure Batch, we were able to deploy our final model and produce the global map in a single week. Now, rather than waiting months or even years for an updated global LULC map, we can process the entire world in near real-time.

We’re proud to share this map with the world. Get acquainted with the data on the beautiful story map Esri created, and explore the map itself on Esri’s Living Atlas and Microsoft’s Planetary Computer. We can’t wait to see what you’ll build with it.

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Melbourne and Eastern Victoria from the 2020 10-m LULC map. The city on Port Phillip Bay is surrounded by crops and grass to the northwest and southeast, with Yarra Ranges National Park to the northeast, which is home to kangaroos, wallabies, and over 100 species of native birds.

About Impact Observatory

Impact Observatory is a mission-driven technology company bringing artificial intelligence powered algorithms and on-demand data to sustainability and environmental risk analysis for governments, non-profit organizations, companies, and markets. Founded in 2020 in Washington, DC, Impact Observatory’s goal is to empower global decision-makers to be planetary superheroes, with the timely, actionable science-based insights they need to succeed.