Land Use and Land Use Change
Changing land use is one primary way the environment is modified to suit human needs, and land use changes have profound effects on natural systems, ranging from local changes in nearby ecosystems to world-wide effects on climate and biodiversity. The environmental effects of land cover changes are magnified by associated alterations in the hydrologic cycle, cycling of essential nutrients, exchanges with the atmosphere, availability and distribution of critical habitats, and countless other factors. Hydrologic transport propagates the effects of land use change to streams, rivers, estuaries, and ultimately to the oceans. Atmospheric transport propagates effects to the entire globe.
The modern human population has steadily increasing needs and abilities to impose land use change, one aspect of the phenomenon called "human domination of the Earth's ecosystems." Understanding the causes and consequences of land use change has been identified by the National Academy of Sciences as one of the grand challenges facing the environmental sciences. SERC has a special emphasis on coastal systems, where human population, land use change, and resulting environmental changes are being increasingly concentrated.
Land use change is important because land use affects everything else in the environment. Changes in land use alter soil properties, applications of fertilizers and other materials, the distribution of plant communities, and available habitats for animals. Land use affects the amount and composition of stream water, so land use changes also impact aquatic ecosystems. Studies by SERC scientists and others have shown that land use strongly affects the delivery of sediment and plant nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) to Chesapeake Bay, where overloads of these materials have contributed to the Bay's ecological distress.