Satellite data provide the basis for geographically referenced global land cover characterization that is internally consistent, repeatable over time, and potentially more reliable than ground-based sources. During the last 20 years considerable research efforts have been devoted to the extraction of land cover information from these data. Only during the last few years have these methods begun to be applied in operational contexts. Such applications have thus far primarily addressed key global change issues such as the global carbon balance. Examples of the successful quasi-operational implementation of remote sensing include NASA's Humid Tropical Landsat Pathfinder project, where high resolution data are being used at subcontinental scales to measure change in the areal extent of tropical rain forests throughout the world, and the Tropical Ecosystem Environment observation by Satellite (TREES) project to assess forest cover in the tropics. At coarser resolutions, a number of land cover products suitable for incorporation in global and regional models have been developed. Alternatives to traditional land cover classifications have also been developed to describe gradients and mosaics in the vegetation more realistically. These land cover products offer the possibility for applications in ecological and human dimensions research at regional and global scales, as well as for implementation of international agreements that require land cover information. Recently launched and future satellites will carry sensors that provide data with greatly improved capabilities for land cover characterization and advancements in computing environments make it feasible to take advantage of these new data. However, several challenges must be overcome in making a transition from research to operational land cover monitoring, including automation of methods to analyse the satellite data, more effective techniques for validation, and assurance of long-term continuity in the availability of satellite measurements.