Climate modeling is forward-looking, its general intention to hypothesize what our planet might look like at a later date. Because Earth’s vegetation influences climate, climate models frequently include reconstructions of vegetation and are often validated by comparisons with the past. Yet such models tend to be oversimplified, obscuring or omitting how people affected the land and its cover.
The absence of such data has led to LandCover6k, a project now in its sixth year that includes more than 200 archaeologists, historians, geographers, paleoecologists and climate modelers from around the world.
Led by archaeologists Kathleen Morrison of the University of Pennsylvania, Marco Madella of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Nicki Whitehouse of the University of Glasgow, with the data expertise of Penn landscape archaeologist Emily Hammer and others , LandCover6k’s goal is to aggregate archaeological and historical evidence of land use systems from four time frames – 12,000 years ago, 6,000 years ago, 4,000 years ago and around the year 1500 – in a single database that anyone can understand and use.
The project offers what researchers hope will become a tool to improve predictions about the planet’s future, and fill in the gaps in its past. “Understanding the human impact on Earth is not just about examining the vegetation of the past. It is also important to understand how humans used the land and, in particular, the relationship between human land use and vegetation, ”says Morrison.
Although current models of the Earth system suggest that human activity over the past 12,000 years has influenced regional and global climate, says Madella, “the models do not capture the diversity and intensity of human activities that have affected past land cover, nor capture carbon and water cycles. . “
Archeology provides important land use information that “helps reveal how humans affected past land cover on a global scale,” Whitehouse adds, “including crops and cultivated animals, how they were. cultivated and how much land was needed to feed the growing population. “
In a new PLOS ONE document, the team provides a detailed introduction to LandCover6k’s land use classification system and global database.
Create a common language, a system
Sharing such data first meant creating a common language that scientists from all disciplines could understand. It’s a bigger job than it looks, says Morrison. “Classification means putting limits on something. It’s very difficult, because archaeologists are often much more comfortable with storytelling.”
Partly because of a lack of common terminology, archaeologists did not attempt to aggregate and compare data on a global scale, which paleoecologists and project modelers had already done, adds. she. “We spent years consulting with colleagues around the world, discussing all the different types of land use, and developing a system of communication – the same language, the same terminology – that could be used anywhere. . “
Because these categories have historically had different meanings depending on location, context and period, some archaeologists were initially reluctant to commit to unique definitions for each. Hammer offers the concept of “agriculture” as an example. “The line between what is called ‘agriculture’ and what is considered small-scale food production by hunter-gatherers really varies across the world,” she says. So how could the terrain judge fairly when the actions of hunter-gatherers managing wild plant and animal resources have become “agricultural”?
Questions like these prompted the LandCover6k team to create a hierarchy within the classification system, with a top-level category capturing an idea in its broadest sense and several distinct subcategories descending from there. In the example of agriculture, the research team created a subgroup – low level food production – which could include the work of hunter-gatherers. The hope was to offer enough nuance for the archaeological community while still making the data accessible to climate modellers.
In addition to this flexible hierarchy and uniform terminology, the final classification has three other main characteristics. It is scale and source independent, which means it captures the myriad of ways something can be investigated. It “takes the perspective of the earth rather than people,” as the researchers write in PLOS ONE, and it uses a consistent 8×8 kilometer grid scale. “It’s big enough, archaeologically speaking,” says Hammer, “but we made it so that one person didn’t draw something very small and another person very tall.”
To show how the classification works, the researchers offer the example of the Middle East 6,000 years ago. This region, the area represented by modern Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen, was home to some of the world’s earliest agriculture. Using the new classification and the new database, the project participants constructed a regional land use map, despite the availability of data which differs from place to place.
“Mesopotamia has been studied since the mid-19th century, so there is a lot of data and syntheses to draw on,” explains Hammer. “Arabia has not been studied as well. There are only a few data points, especially for this period, and due to climatic events, data is even scarcer than for other periods. We wanted to illustrate the approach you would take in a situation where you have a lot of data versus a location with just a little. ”The new Middle East land map is a proof of concept for the project, showing the contrast between the sedentary farms of Mesopotamia and the more sparse lands of Arabia.
Researchers don’t see information gaps, like those in Arabia, as problematic. Rather because the land use database also records the coverage and data quality, it can highlight areas that need more research. “Humans have transformed landscapes for thousands of years,” says Morrison. “But we can’t just say that. We have to demonstrate it.”
And that’s exactly what LandCover6k aims to do, by merging what archaeologists have gleaned about human land use at different times and places into a single database accessible to climate modellers – and to both. others. “This project is really about translating what we do,” says Hammer, “not only about standardizing terminology so that we can speak globally, but also about weaving in stories from the past. “