LAND USE AND LAND COVER CHANGE AS A DRIVER OF ECOSYSTEM DEGRADATION ACROSS BIOMES
Prince, Stephen D
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The expansion and intensification of agricultural production in human-dominated landscapes threaten efforts to sustain natural ecosystems and maintain agricultural production in a changing climate. Long-term use of agricultural lands, combined with conversion of natural ecosystems for agricultural production, can rapidly degrade the health of remaining natural ecosystems. The fundamental goal of this dissertation was to assess the impacts of anthropogenic degradation on stocks and sequestration of carbon. Although degradation alters a range of ecosystem services, case studies of ecosystem degradation in this dissertation focus on reductions in vegetation productivity, carbon stocks, and the extent of natural forest cover as a result of human activity. Time series of satellite remote sensing data were used to track forest and rangeland degradation in the southwestern United States, forest carbon emissions from cropland expansion in the Brazilian Cerrado, and fire-driven forest conversion for oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia. Three major themes link the regional case studies: expansion and intensification of agricultural production, market demand and certification, and agricultural management in response to climate variability. Conclusions from the dissertation underscore the widespread influence of land management on vegetation productivity and forest carbon stocks. In the Southwest United States, reductions in net primary production on managed lands were higher in forested landscapes than other cover types. In contrast, Native American Indian Reservations, often considered to be more degraded, actually had smaller absolute reductions in net primary productivity during 2000-2011. Multi-year droughts in the southwest present new challenges for managing forests and rangelands, and climate projections suggest dry conditions will intensify in the coming century. In Southeast Asia, industry-led efforts to certify sustainable palm oil production were evaluated using satellite data on fires and forest loss. Rates of fire-driven deforestation and total fire activity declined following certification, highlighting the potential for certification to reduce ignitions during El Niño years and protect remaining fragments of lowland and peat forest. Aligning certification criteria for sustainable palm oil with satellite monitoring capabilities may help accelerate compliance with environmental legislation and market demands for deforestation-free products. In Brazil, government and industry actions to limit Amazon deforestation have largely overlooked the neighboring Cerrado biome. Forest carbon emissions from deforestation for soy expansion in the Cerrado increased substantially after the implementation of the Soy Moratorium in the Brazilian Amazon, partially offsetting recent reductions in Amazon deforestation carbon emissions. The success of policies to support sustainable agricultural production therefore depends on efforts to minimize cross-biome leakage and the ability to monitor compliance and unintended consequences. Solutions for management must also confront the growing influence of climate variability. Time series of satellite data may allow early detection of degradation impacts and support efforts to mitigate the influence of sustained agricultural production on natural systems. Changes in vegetation carbon stocks from ecosystem degradation varied across case studies, underscoring the diverse nature of direct and indirect drivers of degradation across different land use systems. Direct human drivers of ecosystem degradation in the southwest United States from management of livestock grazing resulted in gradual changes in vegetation productivity, whereas mining and oil extraction areas showed large and permanent reductions. Forest carbon emissions from agriculture expansion in the Cerrado were a one-time process, as native vegetation is cleared for cropland expansion. In contrast, the carbon emissions from Southeast Asia’s forest and peatland conversion involve both sudden and gradual processes, as carbon accumulation in oil palm plantations partially compensates for emissions from forest conversion. Overall, this research made contributions to understanding of the regional impacts of human activity and the potential for climate change mitigation from sustainable land use practices in human-dominated landscapes.