New maps reveal the human footprint on Earth
University of Wisconsin release
December 5, 2005
by Paroma Basu
As global populations swell, farmers are cultivating more and more land in a desperate bid to keep pace with the ever-intensifying needs of humans.
As a result, agricultural activity now dominates more than a third of the Earth’s landscape and has emerged as one of the central forces of global environmental change, say scientists at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) at UW-Madison.
Navin Ramankutty, an assistant scientist at SAGE, says, “the real question is: how can we continue to produce food from the land while preventing negative environmental consequences such as deforestation, water pollution and soil erosion?”
To better understand that crucial trade-off, Ramankutty and other SAGE researchers are tracking the changing patterns of agricultural land use around the world, including a look at related factors such as global crop yields and fertilizer use. Distilling that information into computer-generated maps, the scientists will present their early findings during the fall meeting (Dec. 5-9, 2005) of the American Geophysical Union.
Human footprint maps. The top image shows cropland while the bottom image reveals cropland. Images courtesy of the University of Wisconsin.
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Swelling global populations have made pastures and croplands an increasingly evident feature of the human landscape. Today, agricultural activity is rapidly expanding in countries in Latin America, even as practices intensify further in heavily cultivated nations such as the United States, India and China. These computer-generated maps were created by scientists at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“In the act of making these maps we are asking: where is the human footprint on the Earth?” says Amato Evan, a SAGE researcher who merged available census and satellite data to create visuals reflecting the reach of pasture and croplands worldwide. Chad Monfreda, a graduate student at SAGE, is similarly mapping the location, range and yields of over 150 individual crops reared around the planet.
The exercise is already beginning to cast light on some emerging trends. Countries such as Argentina and Brazil, for instance, have increasingly cleared forests to grow soybean, a legume that has never been a traditional crop of Latin America. Scientists say the surge in soybean production there has a lot to do with the booming demand for soy all the way at the other end of the world – in China. Meanwhile, Monfreda notes, long-time soybean farmers in the U.S. – the world’s top soybean producer – are growing increasingly insecure about their place in the global market.
Soybean cultivation in South America. Map showing soybean distribution area in North and South America as of the year 2000. Rainforest and savanna (“cerrado”) ecosystems in the Amazon are giving way to soya fields. Images courtesy of the Global Land Use Database at the University of Wisconsin.
But scientists risk missing important regional and local trends by taking only a global approach to land use change. “There is still a large ‘disconnect’ between global, top-down views of changing planetary conditions, and the local, bottom-up perspective of how humans affect and live in a changing environment,” says Jonathan Foley, director of SAGE.
To help bridge that gap, SAGE researchers are working towards a new “Earth Collaboratory,” an unprecedented Internet-based data bank that would simultaneously draw on the knowledge of global scientists, local environmentalists and everyday citizens. Adds Foley: “[The Collaboratory] will truly be a brave new experiment that effectively bridges science, decision-making and real-world environmental practice – collectively envisioning a new way to live sustainably.”
For more on SAGE’s work on global land use and land cover, visit www.sage.wisc.edu/iamdata.
This story is based on a modified news release from the University of Wisconsin. The original version appears at New maps reveal the human footprint on Earth.