New universal language for land changes could explain ecosystem loss

Aberystwyth University

Aberystwyth University

01 September 2022

Aberystwyth University scientists have jointly developed a universal language to describe the changing world, which could help uncover what is causing ecosystem loss and environmental degradation.

The Global Change Taxonomy, a project involving researchers from countries including Australia, Italy and Greece in addition to Wales, attempts to unify the different ways of describing land cover change from local areas to globally, and over varying periods of time.

The proliferation in global monitoring satellites in recent decades has helped lead to greater awareness and understanding of climate and land cover changes largely caused by human activities such as agriculture, commercial forestry and urban infrastructure.

However, the focus has been more on documenting change rather than exploring connections between the different causes.

This exploration is hindered by a lack of consistency regarding the language used, so ‘desertification’ or ‘degradation’ for example may have different meanings to different governments or organisations and actually encompass a diverse range of contributory changes. This makes it harder to achieve uniform policymaking and land management within and across borders.

The new list of terms features 246 classes, which can illustrate how current landscapes have evolved, how they have changed over time and how future landscapes may appear. The terms and phrases are scalable in both space and time and can describe changes from the smallest area of land cover to large regions. This approach also provides evidence for the various causes of these changes. 

The categories can also be used with satellite and airborne sensor data to identify, describe and map changes.

Professor Richard Lucas, from Aberystwyth University’s Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, said:

“Understanding the different pressures on land cover is critical if we are to reverse the loss and damage that has been inflicted on the Earth’s environments to date, even more so given how this change is driven by socioeconomic and increasingly climate-related factors.

“At present there is no means of doing so in a consistent and accessible manner, which hinders our ability to address the major challenges facing both humans and nature. Many legacy terms provide insufficient detail or consistency, meaning many efforts are inefficient and less effective than they could be.

“This taxonomy delivers clarity to land managers and scientists and will help governments, both inside and beyond their borders, develop, implement and assess policies including those with focus on conversation, protection, restoration and recovery of our natural world.”

The paper, which is published today (1 September) in ‘Global Change Biology’, follows work jointly conducted by the Aberystwyth Business School that placed a value on differing aspects of the natural world.