A reconstruction of global agricultural areas and land cover for the last millennium
Article first published online: 21 AUG 2008
Copyright 2008 by the American Geophysical Union.
Global Biogeochemical Cycles
Volume 22, Issue 3, September 2008
How to Cite
2008), A reconstruction of global agricultural areas and land cover for the last millennium, Global Biogeochem. Cycles, 22, GB3018, doi:10.1029/2007GB003153., , , and (
- Issue published online: 21 AUG 2008
- Article first published online: 21 AUG 2008
- Manuscript Accepted: 8 MAY 2008
- Manuscript Revised: 1 APR 2008
- Manuscript Received: 26 NOV 2007
- historical land cover;
- land use;
- agricultural areas
 Humans have substantially modified the Earth's land cover, especially by transforming natural ecosystems to agricultural areas. In preindustrial times, the expansion of agriculture was probably the dominant process by which humankind altered the Earth system, but little is known about its extent, timing, and spatial pattern. This study presents an approach to reconstruct spatially explicit changes in global agricultural areas (cropland and pasture) and the resulting changes in land cover over the last millennium. The reconstruction is based on published maps of agricultural areas for the last three centuries. For earlier times, a country-based method is developed that uses population data as a proxy for agricultural activity. With this approach, the extent of cropland and pasture is consistently estimated since AD 800. The resulting reconstruction of agricultural areas is combined with a map of potential vegetation to estimate the resulting historical changes in land cover. Uncertainties associated with this approach, in particular owing to technological progress in agriculture and uncertainties in population estimates, are quantified. About 5 million km2 of natural vegetation are found to be transformed to agriculture between AD 800 and 1700, slightly more to cropland (mainly at the expense of forested area) than to pasture (mainly at the expense of natural grasslands). Historical events such as the Black Death in Europe led to considerable dynamics in land cover change on a regional scale. The reconstruction can be used with global climate and ecosystem models to assess the impact of human activities on the Earth system in preindustrial times.