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Land cover and land use change

January 1, 2018

Climate can affect and be affected by changes in land cover (the physical features that cover the land such as trees or pavement) and land use (human management and activities on land, such as mining or recreation). A forest, for instance, would likely include tree cover but could also include areas of recent tree removals currently covered by open grass areas. Land cover and use are inherently coupled: changes in land-use practices can change land cover, and land cover enables specific land uses. Understanding how land cover, use, condition, and management vary in space and time is challenging.

Changes in land cover can occur in response to both human and climate drivers. For example, demand for new settlements often results in the permanent loss of natural and working lands, which can result in localized changes in weather patterns, temperature, and precipitation. Aggregated over large areas, these changes have the potential to influence Earth’s climate by altering regional and global circulation patterns, changing the albedo (reflectivity) of Earth’s surface, and changing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Conversely, climate change can also influence land cover, resulting in a loss of forest cover from climate-related increases in disturbances, the expansion of woody vegetation into grasslands, and the loss of beaches due to coastal erosion amplified by rises in sea level.

Land use is also changed by both human and climate drivers. Land-use decisions are traditionally based on short-term economic factors. Land-use changes are increasingly being influenced by distant forces due to the globalization of many markets. Land use can also change due to local, state, and national policies, such as programs designed to remove cultivation from highly erodible land to mitigate degradation, legislation to address sea level rise in local comprehensive plans, or policies that reduce the rate of timber harvest on federal lands. Technological innovation has also influenced land-use change, with the expansion of cultivated lands from the development of irrigation technologies and, more recently, decreases in demand for agricultural land due to increases in crop productivity. The recent expansion of oil and gas extraction activities throughout large areas of the United States demonstrates how policy, economics, and technology can collectively influence and change land use and land cover.

Decisions about land use, cover, and management can help determine society’s ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Publication Year 2018
Title Land cover and land use change
DOI 10.7930/NCA4.2018.CH5
Authors Benjamin M. Sleeter, Thomas Loveland, Grant Domke, Nate Herold, James Wickham, Nathan J. Wood
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70201871
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Office of the AD Climate and Land-Use Change