Human ‘footprint’ on planet Earth is far bigger than previously believed

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Logging. Aerial drone view of deforestation environmental problem in Borneo
Deforestation in Borneo - as a new study estimates 32% of Earth's land area has seen land-use change. (Getty)

The human ‘footprint’ on planet Earth - in terms of land-use changes around the globe - now affects about a third of the land on our planet, researchers warned.

New analysis using satellite data and statistics found that global land-use changes affect four times as much land area as previously estimated.

Statistics suggest that land-use changes affect about 32% of Earth’s surface - in the form of deforestation, urban growth, agricultural expansion, or reforestation.

The researchers say that the new maps of land use could help governments around the world hit climate change targets. 

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The research team from IMK-IFU and Wageningen University in the Netherlands combined various data from free sources to develop a set of new, high-resolution maps called "HILDA+" (Historic Land Dynamics Assessment +).

The maps trace and reconstruct global land-use changes between 1960 and 2019 using high-resolution satellite data and land-use statistics

Karina Winkler from the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research — Atmospheric Environmental Research Division (IMK-IFU) said: ‘"To face the global challenges of our time, we need to better understand the extent of land-use change and its contribution to climate change, biodiversity, and food production. 

"In fact, land use also plays a critical role in achieving the Paris climate targets."

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The maps show that the rate of land-use change has changed: with a period of accelerated land-use change from 1960-2005 which then slowed down.

Winkler said: "This trend reversal could be related to the increasing importance of global trade for agricultural production and to the global economic crisis of 2007/2008.”

The researchers point to North-South differences. Hence, in the Global North, for example in Europe, the USA, or Russia, forests have expanded and the arable land area has decreased.

In the Global South, for example in Brazil or Indonesia, forest areas have decreased and arable as well as pasture lands have increased.

The new land-use data could provide an improved data basis for climate and Earth system models — and thus contribute to political debates on strategies on how to achieve sustainable land use in the future.

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