What Role for Humans in Global Land Cover Change over the Holocene? Insights from Models and Data

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 3:20 PM
Kristen M. Krumhardt1,2, Jed O Kaplan1, Basil Davis1 and Marco Zanon3, (1)University of Lausanne, Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, Lausanne, Switzerland, (2)University of Colorado at Boulder, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Boulder, CO, United States, (3)University of Kiel, Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte, Kiel, Germany
Did humans affect global climate over the before the Industrial Era? While this question is hotly debated, the co-evolution of humans and the natural environment over the last 11,700 years had an undisputed role in influencing the development and present state of terrestrial ecosystems, many of which are highly valued today as economic, cultural, and ecological resources. Yet we still have a very incomplete picture of human-environment interactions over the Holocene. In order to address this, we combined a global dynamic vegetation model with a new model of preindustrial anthropogenic land cover change. We drive this integrated model a new synthesis of demographic, technological, and economic development over preindustrial time, and a database of historical urbanization covering the last 8000 years. We simulate natural vegetation and anthropogenic land use from 11,700 years before present to AD 1850 and compare these results with regional syntheses of pollen-based reconstructions of land cover.

Our model results show that climate and tectonics controlled global land cover in the early Holocene. Shifts in forest biomes on the northern continents show an expansion of temperate tree types far to the north of their present day limits. By the early Iron Age (1000 BC), however, humans in Europe, East Asia, and Mesoamerica had a larger influence than natural processes on the landscape. Anthropogenic deforestation was widespread with most areas of temperate Europe and southwest Asia, east-central China, northern India, and Mesoamerica occupied by a matrix of natural vegetation, cropland and pastures. While we simulate fluctuations in human impact on the landscape, including periods of widespread land abandonment, e.g., during the Migration Period in Europe that following the end of the Western Roman Empire, approaching the Industrial Revolution nearly all of the landmasses of Europe and south and East Asia are dominated by anthropogenic activities. In contrast, the collapse of the aboriginal populations of the Americas following 15th century European contact leads to a period of ecosystem recovery. Initial comparisons with pollen-based land cover reconstructions in Europe suggest that the model is too late in simulating the first period of widespread deforestation, which occurs already during the Bronze Age (~2500 BC).