Mapping the Topographic Fingerprints of Humanity Across Earth – EOS

By , Giulia Sofia, and Erle Ellis

If increasingly globalized societies are to make better land management decisions, the geosciences must globally evaluate how humans are reshaping Earth’s surface

utah-mine-topographic-fingerprint-human-landscape-800x600
Fig. 1. Three-dimensional view of Bingham Canyon Mine, Utah, a human-made topographic signature, based on a free, open-access high-resolution data set. Credit: Data from Utah AGRC

Since geologic time began, Earth’s surface has been evolving through natural processes of tectonic uplift, volcanism, erosion, and the movement of sediment. Now a new force of global change is altering Earth’s surface and morphology in unprecedented ways: humanity.

Human activities are leaving their fingerprints across Earth (Figure 1), driven by increasing populations, technological capacities, and societal demands [e.g., Ellis, 2015; Brown et al., 2017; Waters et al., 2016]. We have altered flood patterns, created barriers to runoff and erosion, funneled sedimentation into specific areas, flattened mountains, piled hills, dredged land from the sea, and even triggered seismic activity [Tarolli and Sofia, 2016]. These and other changes can pose broad threats to the sustainability of human societies and environments.

If increasingly globalized societies are to make better land management decisions, the geosciences must globally evaluate how humans are reshaping Earth’s surface. A comprehensive mapping of human topographic signatures on a planet-wide scale is required if we are to understand, model, and forecast the geological hazards of the future.

Understanding and addressing the causes and consequences of anthropogenic landform modifications are a worldwide challenge. But this challenge also poses an opportunity to better manage environmental resources and protect environmental values [DeFries et al., 2012].

If you are interested in this article, you can access the rest here.