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Land Use and Land Cover

The primary driver behind climate change is excessive greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, which enhance the greenhouse effect to trap excess energy and warm the planet1. A not insignificant aspect of climate change is how much the Earth’s surface has changed since the 1800s, as we depend on the natural environment to provide food, water, and other critical resources to a rapidly growing population2.

Humans have impacted over 70% of the planet’s surface, with over 35% dedicated solely to agricultural practices3. The land surface is a natural source and sink for various greenhouse gases. Plants—especially trees—take up and store CO2 in their biomass and soils, but deforestation negates these effects1,4. Removing forests decreases the amount of carbon held by the land and reduces ecological biodiversity, function, and resiliency—something which current and future generations depend on to provide ecosystem services2,5,6.

Crop and pasture management practices have also increased methane and nitrous oxide emissions, two other significant greenhouse gases with greater global warming potentials, by 30%-52%1,7. Agriculture is the second largest contributor to climate change behind fossil fuel emissions. Agriculture contributes to climate change through direct emissions from fertilizers and livestock but also indirectly with degrading soils and vegetation2. More sustainable land-use practices could significantly mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting environmental biodiversity, and helping ensure food security for current and future generations8,9,10,11. These actions can be incentivized through carbon credit programs.

These global patterns are mirrored in Texas, where natural grasslands and forests have been converted to grazing and farming fields at a rapid rate6. This includes the expansive development of natural gas fracking and oil drilling operations12,13. Urban expansion of major cities like Austin and Houston also replaces natural surfaces with built materials, which absorb more incoming solar radiation than other natural surfaces, contributing to warming conditions and negatively impacting human health14,15,16.

Climate projections indicate the continued increase in average temperatures statewide through the end of the century, shifting Texas to a more arid climate5,17. These warmer conditions will likely impact surface water availably and cause crop yields to decline by up to 70 percent depending on the model scenario18,19,20. Wildfires are expected to become more common and, combined with drier conditions, will likely extend the range of deserts in Texas and shift the landscape and ecosystems of the state21.

Many ecosystems in Texas are already adapted to living in an arid environment and cannot tolerate a worsening in water scarcity22. Depending on the actions taken to protect the land and mitigate climate change, the Chihuahuan Desert’s geographic range will likely increase and extend into higher elevations, impacting biodiversity and carbon sequestration23. Much wildlife will likely migrate with the desert’s expansion, and some native plants will likely persist and help delay desertification by retaining soil moisture and nutrients. However, wildfires, livestock grazing, and urban growth accelerate the loss of grasslands to deserts. Many forests will likely transition into grasslands, while existing grasslands will likely become deserts5,19. Proper adaptation and mitigation policy measures could be used to protect vital ecosystems, infrastructure, and resources under changing climate conditions.

There are many complex and interconnected ways land use and land cover change interact with the climate and human well-being. The above should merely be considered a general overview; learn more by exploring the maps and resources below.

Edwards Aquifer Land Use / Land Cover (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality)

Global Forest Watch: A community-focused data tool for monitoring and managing the world’s forests and implementing more sustainable land-use strategies.

National Land Cover Database (United States Geological Survey)

New Climate Maps Show a Transformed United States (ProPublica)

Support the ecosystems that support us all (Texas Coastal Xchange)

Image Gallery

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  1. IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.
  1. IPCC, 2019: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.- O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. In press.
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  11. Hansen, M., A. Egorov, P. Potapov, S. Stehman, A. Tyukavina, S. Turubanova, D. P. Roy, S. Goetz, and others 2014. Monitoring conterminous United States (CONUS) land cover change with web-enabled Landsat data (WELD). Remote sensing of Environment 140. Elsevier: 466–484.
  12. Pierre, J. P., B. D. Wolaver, B. J. Labay, T. J. LaDuc, C. M. Duran, W. A. Ryberg, T. J. Hibbitts, and J. R. Andrews. 2018. Comparison of recent oil and gas, wind energy, and other anthropogenic landscape alteration factors in Texas through 2014. Environmental management 61. Springer: 805–818.
  13. Streutker, D. R. 2003. Satellite-measured growth of the urban heat island of Houston, Texas. Remote Sensing of Environment 85. Elsevier: 282–289.
  14. Jiang, X., C. Wiedinmyer, F. Chen, Z.-L. Yang, and J. C.-F. Lo. 2008. Predicted impacts of climate and land use change on surface ozone in the Houston, Texas, area. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 113. Wiley Online Library.
  15. Bart, I. L. 2010. Urban sprawl and climate change: A statistical exploration of cause and effect, with policy options for the EU. Land use policy 27. Elsevier: 283–292.
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  17. Banner, J. L., C. S. Jackson, Z.-L. Yang, K. Hayhoe, C. Woodhouse, L. Gulden, K. Jacobs, G. North, and others 2010. Climate change impacts on texas water a white paper assessment of the past, present and future and recommendations for action. Texas Water Journal 1: 1–19.
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  20. Venkataraman, K., S. Tummuri, A. Medina, and J. Perry. 2016. 21st century drought outlook for major climate divisions of Texas based on CMIP5 multimodel ensemble: Implications for water resource management. Journal of hydrology 534. Elsevier: 300–316.
  21. Nielsen-Gammon, J. W., J. L. Banner, B. I. Cook, D. M. Tremaine, C. I. Wong, R. E. Mace, H. Gao, Z.-L. Yang, and others 2020. Unprecedented drought challenges for Texas water resources in a changing climate: what do researchers and stakeholders need to know? Earth’s Future 8. Wiley Online Library: e2020EF001552.
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