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Towards spatially continuous mapping of soil organic carbon in croplands using multitemporal Sentinel-2 remote sensing

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Intensified human activities can augment soil organic carbon (SOC) losses from the world’s croplands, making SOC a highly dynamic parameter both in space and time. Sentinel-2 spectral imagery is well placed to capture the spatiotemporal variability of SOC, but its capability has only been demonstrated for agricultural regions mostly located in Europe. Furthermore, most studies so far only used single-date images that resulted in spatially non-continuous SOC maps, hampering their ability to aid multiscale SOC assessments. Here, we aim to achieve spatially continuous mapping of SOC in croplands, by creating multitemporal bare soil composites that maximize cropland coverage in two regions of varying agroecosystems and landscape structure in the Northeast China Chernozem region and the Belgian Loam Belt. Bare soil pixels were extracted via spectral index thresholding that excluded contaminated pixels from external perturbance. Multitemporal soil composites were then obtained by averaging over multiple single-date bare soil images that were selected within pre-determined optimal time-windows, corresponding to the region-specific crop sowing periods when best possible surface conditions were expected. Results show that the optimal time-window filter ensured selective inclusion of single-date images that themselves yielded stable and robust SOC predictions across multiple years. Spectral-based models developed from multitemporal composites consistently produced better or similar prediction accuracies than single-date images for both study regions (R2: 0.52–0.62; RMSE: 0.17–0.21 g 100 g−1), while also achieved maximum cropland coverage (>82 %). Bootstrap modelling demonstrated that SOC mapping via multitemporal Sentinel-2 data was associated with small uncertainties. Investigations into the significant spectral bands that contributed to the prediction of SOC suggested that, regardless of the study regions, the physical relationship between spectral bands and SOC that predominantly exists for laboratory spectra is largely translated into Sentinel-2 platforms. This study highlights the widespread applicability of multitemporal Sentinel-2 remote sensing for effective and high-resolution SOC mapping, in order to detect localized soil degradation as well as to inform regional cropland management in diverse agroecosystems.

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