In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Effects of Land Use

  • Introduction
  • Land Use as Mitigation Strategy

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Environmental Science Effects of Land Use
Darla K. Munroe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0084


Land use refers to the management or modification of the earth’s land surface by human agents. Often it refers to the conversion of natural landscapes like forests or wetlands into built environments or agricultural production, but also includes activities such as mining or the storage of waste into landfills. Land use is spatial, that is, resulting from interactions between humans and their environment. Land use is also temporal because past land changes may alter what choices are possible in the future. Natural and social science communities have engaged in studying the drivers of land-use change and associated environmental consequences as dynamic, coupled, social-environmental systems.

General Overviews

Historically, land-system science grew out of an effort to integrate various disciplinary perspectives on significant land changes with implications for the earth system. Central to these efforts was a growing awareness of unprecedented human impact on multiple physical and biological systems that led first to the development of the International Geosphere Biosphere Program, and then later to the International Human Dimensions Program as detailed in Mooney, et al. 2013. Additionally, the advent of earth-observing satellites in the late 20th century called attention to Amazonian deforestation. Social scientists involved in studying people, as agents of change in agricultural systems associated with significant forest changes, linked with remote sensing experts to put “people into pixels” (see Liverman and Cuesta 2008), integrating insights about drivers and consequences of land-use change. Large-scale regional shifts in land use reflect the collective, cumulative impact of myriad decision makers and transitions in land systems, from frontier clearing to subsistence agriculture, to intensified agriculture and urbanization, and finally conservation. Such transitions have been unfolding in many world regions over time, as described in Foley, et al. 2005. Crutzen 2006 explains how human impacts, including land-use changes, are now significant enough to be considered a geological component of the earth system, that is, outcompeting natural processes in their influence on the biosphere.

  • Crutzen, P. J. 2006. The “Anthropocene.” In Earth system science in the Anthropocene. Edited by E. Ehlers and T. Krafft, 13–18. Berlin, Heidelberg, Germany: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

    DOI: 10.1007/3-540-26590-2_3

    Defining the current geological epoch of unparalleled human impact as the “Anthropocene.”

  • Foley, J. A., R. DeFries, G. P. Asner, et al. 2005. Global consequences of land use. Science 309.5734: 570–574.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1111772

    This paper explains the global significance of cropland, pastureland, and urban land systems.

  • Liverman, D. M., and R. M. R. Cuesta. 2008. Human interactions with the earth system: People and pixels revisited. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 33.9: 1458–1471.

    DOI: 10.1002/esp.1715

    An assessment of two decades’ worth of research to integrate natural and social science tools and techniques to study land systems.

  • Mooney, H. A., A. Duraiappah, and A. Larigauderie. 2013. Evolution of natural and social science interactions in global change research programs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 Suppl. 1: 3665–3672.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1107484110

    Earth system science as a discipline emerged in the 1980s in response to perceived need to understand human impact on earth system by integrating across social and environmental sciences.

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