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Divergent projections of future land use in the United States arising from different models and scenarios

August 12, 2016

A variety of land-use and land-cover (LULC) models operating at scales from local to global have been developed in recent years, including a number of models that provide spatially explicit, multi-class LULC projections for the conterminous United States. This diversity of modeling approaches raises the question: how consistent are their projections of future land use? We compared projections from six LULC modeling applications for the United States and assessed quantitative, spatial, and conceptual inconsistencies. Each set of projections provided multiple scenarios covering a period from roughly 2000 to 2050. Given the unique spatial, thematic, and temporal characteristics of each set of projections, individual projections were aggregated to a common set of basic, generalized LULC classes (i.e., cropland, pasture, forest, range, and urban) and summarized at the county level across the conterminous United States. We found very little agreement in projected future LULC trends and patterns among the different models. Variability among scenarios for a given model was generally lower than variability among different models, in terms of both trends in the amounts of basic LULC classes and their projected spatial patterns. Even when different models assessed the same purported scenario, model projections varied substantially. Projections of agricultural trends were often far above the maximum historical amounts, raising concerns about the realism of the projections. Comparisons among models were hindered by major discrepancies in categorical definitions, and suggest a need for standardization of historical LULC data sources. To capture a broader range of uncertainties, ensemble modeling approaches are also recommended. However, the vast inconsistencies among LULC models raise questions about the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of current modeling approaches. Given the substantial effects that land-use change can have on ecological and societal processes, there is a need for improvement in LULC theory and modeling capabilities to improve acceptance and use of regional- to national-scale LULC projections for the United States and elsewhere.

Publication Year 2016
Title Divergent projections of future land use in the United States arising from different models and scenarios
DOI 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2016.07.016
Authors Terry L. Sohl, Michael Wimberly, Volker C. Radeloff, David M. Theobald, Benjamin M. Sleeter
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Modelling
Index ID 70175467
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center