Fastest way to union a set of polygons in R

I want to find the fastest way to union a set of polygons into one large polygon.

Lets first get some data:

library('raster')
library('geosphere')
library('mapview')
library(maptools)
library(rgeos)
library(sf)

# Get SpatialPolygonsDataFrame object example
pols<- getData('GADM', country = 'DK', level = 2)

#Project to suitable projection (to be able to calculate area, see later
utm32 = "+proj=utm +zone=32 +ellps=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"
pols<- spTransform(pols, CRS(utm32))

mapview(pols) # 1st approach: maptools::unionSpatialPolygons
system.time(pol1 <- unionSpatialPolygons(pols,rep(1, length(pols))))
#  bruger   system forløbet
#    3.67     0.03     3.72

# 2nd approach: rgeos::gUnion
system.time(pol2 <- gUnaryUnion(pols, id = pols@data\$NAME_0))
#  bruger   system forløbet
#    3.69     0.00     3.74

#3rd appraoch: sf:st_union
pols_sf <- st_as_sf(pols)
system.time(pol3 <- st_union(pols_sf))
#  bruger   system forløbet
#    3.67     0.02     3.68

# 4th approach: rgeos::gBuffer
system.time(pol4 <- gBuffer(pols, byid=F, width=0))
#  bruger   system forløbet
#    1.13     0.00     1.16

Of the four approaches, the three first is very similar, whereas #4 is significantly faster. My problem is that the polygons are not identical:

identical(pol1, pol4)
 FALSE

And the areas are slightly different:

paste(area(pol1))
 "43122105144.9307"

paste(area(pol2))
 "43122105144.9307"

pol3 <- as(pol3, "Spatial")
paste(area(pol3))
 "43122105144.9724"

paste(area(pol4))
 "43122105144.9062"

Why is this, and is there a reason for using one approach over the other (apart from processing time)? Also, do you know of any approaches that are faster?

EDIT:

I did some more testing with more polygons, and it seems as method 1-3 only gets slightly slower with larger dataset, whereas method 4 gets very slow.

• I find pol1 and pol2 aren't identical either. A fail in identical might simply be having the islands in a different order. The difference in area might be the way floating point numbers are being added up, accumulating over millions of points... – Spacedman Apr 10 '18 at 7:08