Stanford on Earth: Measuring land use change and human impact with technology


[MUSIC PLAYING] Hi. I’m Miles Traer. Land use is one of
the biggest drivers of change on the
planet, from agriculture to urbanization to
deforestation to reforestation. But the more we learn, the more
we see that changes in this are affecting us in more ways
than we previously thought. [MUSIC PLAYING] Today, I’m here at the O’Donohue
Family Stanford Educational Farm to speak with
Eric Lambin, an expert on the intersection of global
land use change and policy. Human activity is affecting the
Earth system in two major ways. One is by changing the
atmospheric chemistry. The other one is by
transforming the attribute at the Earth’s surface
via deforestation, expansion of culture,
expansion of cities, et cetera. So in a cumulative sense,
it’s taking a scale and a rate that’s really unprecedented. Lambin and his team
measure land use change using high-resolution
satellite images. They then apply a technique they
call socializing the pixels. They interview land use
managers on the ground to determine what decisions
and activities lead to changes in the
physical environment seen from the satellites. By socializing
the pixels, Lambin doesn’t just know how the land
surface is changing, but why. Our research has shown
that, increasingly, land use [INAUDIBLE]
are influenced by factors that are very
removed from the place where land use change
is taking place. The economy now is
globally integrated. Consumption decisions
come from urban areas in rich and emerging economies. And they basically import
food, wood, or water from very, very removed
place, leading to a very distant effect on
land use change. So we start to study the link
between trade and land use change. And now what we are
really focusing on is, you know, what kind
of policy mechanism can promote more sustainable
land use practices via trade. [MUSIC PLAYING] Lambin gives me an example. In recent years, the
country of Costa Rica has transitioned from
significant deforestation to reforestation. On a satellite image, this might
look like more green pixels. But the country still
needs timber and lumber for construction. By talking to land use
managers on the ground, Lambin might learn
that the lumber is now being imported from the
southeastern United States. This might sound like we’ve
moved the problem from one location to another, but
these new growth US forests are being managed and maintained
much more sustainably. These kinds of ecological
and societal benefits are better revealed by
the socialized pixels. And Lambin says that, when
presenting his research to policymakers, these
maps are an effective tool for identifying and enacting
ecologically responsible land use practices. So of course, when
we do these projects, it’s very important to present
our results to the people who are making decisions. And often, showing
these beautiful maps is much more
powerful than showing them statistics or this
long article that we write. A great story that we were
working in the Maasai Mara with Maasai pastoralists,
often people with a very low
level of education. And so we came with the
satellite images and told them this is taken by satellite. And they said right
away, oh yes, we’ve noticed these stars, you
know, moving very slowly. And in five minutes,
they were really able to understand where
these data were coming from and how they were representing
the landscape they were living on. As you start to present
research to policymakers, how early on are they
a part of this process? I would imagine you have
to bring them in early. It’s really important to
have the decision-makers as part of the project
design so we identify the relevant question together. You know, the traditional
model of the scientist doing his project
and then delivering the report at the end
doesn’t work anymore. So especially the
local stakeholders need to be part of
the project design, of framing the question,
and in some case of the data collection, because that will
build a much greater trust and confidence in
the end results. And it’s much more
likely they will pick up the conclusions in that cases. [MUSIC PLAYING] Humans continue to
change the land surface all over the planet. We dig up and transport
more rocks, sand, and soil than all of the world’s
rivers combined. But progress has been made. Regions in developing
countries like Costa Rica have seen significant
reforestation, and farmers in
Brazil and Ecuador have found new global
markets for more sustainably grown crops. With human populations
on the rise, understanding how land use
change and human well-being are coupled together can
help us pave a better path to a sustainable future. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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