Estimating historical changes in global land cover: Croplands from 1700 to 1992


  • Navin Ramankutty,

  • Jonathan A. Foley


Human activities over the last three centuries have significantly transformed the Earth's environment, primarily through the conversion of natural ecosystems to agriculture. This study presents a simple approach to derive geographically explicit changes in global croplands from 1700 to 1992. By calibrating a remotely sensed land cover classification data set against cropland inventory data, we derived a global representation of permanent croplands in 1992, at 5 min spatial resolution [Ramankutty and Foley, 1998]. To reconstruct historical croplands, we first compile an extensive database of historical cropland inventory data, at the national and subnational level, from a variety of sources. Then we use our 1992 cropland data within a simple land cover change model, along with the historical inventory data, to reconstruct global 5 min resolution data on permanent cropland areas from 1992 back to 1700. The reconstructed changes in historical croplands are consistent with the history of human settlement and patterns of economic development. By overlaying our historical cropland data set over a newly derived potential vegetation data set, we analyze our results in terms of the extent to which different natural vegetation types have been converted for agriculture. We further examine the extent to which croplands have been abandoned in different parts of the world. Our data sets could be used within global climate models and global ecosystem models to understand the impacts of land cover change on climate and on the cycling of carbon and water. Such an analysis is a crucial aid to sharpen our thinking about a sustainable future.