Widespread in the subtropics and tropics of the Southern Hemisphere, savannas are highly heterogeneous and seasonal natural vegetation types, which makes it a challenge to detect whether change to vegetation in savannas is either natural or anthropogenic.

The Brazilian Cerrado is the largest savanna in South America, and the most threatened biome in Brazil owing to agricultural expansion. To assess the native Cerrado vegetation (NV) areas most susceptible to natural and anthropogenic change over time, the authors classified 33 years (1985–2017) of Landsat imagery available in the Google Earth Engine (GEE) platform.

The classification strategy used combined empirical and statistical decision trees to generate reference maps for machine learning classification and a novel annual dataset of the predominant Cerrado NV types (forest, savanna, and grassland). We obtained annual NV maps with an average overall accuracy ranging from 87% (at level 1 NV classification) to 71% over the time series, distinguishing the three main NV types. This time series was then used to generate probability maps for each NV class.

The native vegetation in the Cerrado biome declined at an average rate of 0.5% per year (748,687 ha yr−1), mostly affecting forests and savannas. From 1985 to 2017, 24.7 million hectares of NV were lost, and now only 55% of the NV original distribution remains. Of the remnant NV in 2017 (112.6 million hectares), 65% has been stable over the years, while 12% changed among NV types, and 23% was converted to other land uses but is now in some level of secondary NV.

The results were fundamental in indicating areas with higher rates of change in a long time series in the Brazilian Cerrado, and for highlighting the challenges of mapping distinct NV types in a highly seasonal and heterogeneous savanna biome.