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Restoration culture: what is land degradation, how to measure it, and what you can do to reverse some negative trends?

Prepared by: Tom Hengl (OpenGeoHub), Ichsani Wheeler (OpenGeoHub), Robert A. McMillan (OpenGeoHub), Kris Deveria (OpenGeoHub), Leandro Parente (OpenGeoHub), Chris van Diemen (OpenGeoHub), Valentina Delconte (OpenGeoHub)

Land degradation is a systematic loss of function in terrestrial ecosystems: a serious drop in primary productivity, biomass and biodiversity. This means the land produces less than what it is able to at its natural capacity and even eventually deteriorates completely with little to no production at all. No plants. No animals. No water. Where this occurs extensively enough, it also changes the climate. Since the start of the industrial revolution 150 years ago, land degradation has been continuously accelerating at a frightening pace. But all is not lost! We now understand how land degradation can be reversed by systematic land conservation practices, scaling up of agroecological systems, landscape-scale rehydration and massive planting of grasses, shrubs and forests, by leaning into nature and designing and building resilient ecosystems. But where is the potential for (land) restoration the highest? And how can you get involved and help re-green, re-store and expand resilient terrestrial ecosystems?

Land degradation: should you worry?

Land degradation is a reflection of systematic loss of terrestrial ecosystems and their primary productivity. It in general includes:

  • Significant loss of above and/or below ground long-term biomass, consequently leading to losses in primary productivity, positive microclimate / short water cycles.
  • Significant loss in biodiversity, we often see complete functional groups of species disappearing completely, often without a near-term pathway to recolonize an abandoned area.
  • Significant loss in ecosystem resilience, this means that terrestrial ecosystems that are degraded become less capable of recovering without significant intervention and can even permanently shift to new, lower functioning states.

The original native vegetation and natural ecosystems (also known as “biomes” and/or “natural habitats” and/or “ecoregions”) are usually considered to be relatively stable over time and in balance with nature and with the current climate. Over the last several generations ever increasing demands for food and fibre have led people to drastically increase their exploitation of native vegetation and soil, first for resource extraction and then for cash cropping.

Image: Deforestation, especially clear-cutting of tropical forest ecosystems leads to increased emissions that then lead to increase to global warming effects and further desertification. This illustrates that land degradation and global warming are often self-perpetuating processes.

Often unwittingly, these practices have led to loss of soil carbon, loss of water supplies and reductions in nutrient cycling capacity. We are emptying the ‘bucket’ of the very foundational functions of our ecosystems. Sometimes, this loss is so great, that the bucket ceases to be, and the entire ecosystem collapses and essentially dies. The physical and biological structures that took 1000’s to 10,000’s of years to develop can be destroyed in decades.

Since the start of the industrial revolution 150 years ago, our biosphere has been going through some turbulent times that seem to be getting worse and worse, leading to profound instabilities across the global ecosystem. In other words: planet Earth ‘the teeming Eden’ may pass out of our generational memory in 50 to 100 years. Will we become the metaphorical ‘frogs in a gradually warmed pot’? Unable to remember what was, and therefore unable to imagine what could be again?

Climate warming and biodiversity loss impact everyone’s food and water security, and these vital resources could become exponentially more scarce leading to yet another collapse of civilization. Some argue that this time we (humans) are going too far and now face not just local collapse of ecology and civilization, but we now face a great extinction event which will likely include us. Actually, most scientists now agree that the Earth’s biosphere is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history which is primarily caused by the expansion of fossil fuel and agriculture / food industries and urban expansion. We are directly responsible for possibly the biggest ecocide in the planet’s history:

Ripple et al. (2019) provide an overview of the main known trends of global ecosystem degradation and the related climate crisis. Land degradation is only one face of a wider and complex environmental loss, but considering global warming and global security, the decline of ecosystem functions is one of the most concerning and urgent emergency issues that humankind must confront.

On the one hand, the Earth’s surface is rapidly being stripped of its natural habitats and soils, limiting the carbon storage capacity and water and food provision; whilst on the other hand humans currently spend trillions of dollars on devastating wars, redundant Mars missions and finding ever yet more efficient ways to extract non-renewable resources.

What if we invested a portion of these trillions in restoring degraded lands? Could we mitigate some climate change effects and support the just, fair and abundant development of all countries so that there is no need to build real or virtual walls in the first place? Perhaps Greta Thunberg can appear too radical on actions needed to reverse ecosystem degradation? Can we really count on future technology to protect us from global warming, floods and fires? Or should we treat this crisis like actual societal life and death — by becoming even more radical? There is plenty of evidence for serious concern about the speed of the crisis. Yet after all the COP’s, with everything having been said and done, we are still emitting more and more CO2. Much more has been said than has been done, as we all know!

In summary, biosphere problems are much worse than you are likely ready to accept. Will this be our collective shame: we knew what to do, but could not embrace the necessary cultural evolution? Do we really have no choices left but to bury our collective heads in the sand? For starters, we need to have a clear idea of the status and trends of our environment.

How does one measure land degradation?

The first steps to halt such negative trends in ecosystem decline are to grasp how much land is currently degraded globally and where that land is. The first challenge, in measuring how much land we are losing, is to define what exactly degradation is and how can we quantify it? As the definition of land degradation often varies from field to field and country to country, numbers can differ drastically. Gibbs & Salmon (2015) tried estimating global land degradation in Giga hectares (Gha) and concluded that “total degraded land ranges widely from less than 1 Gha to over 6 Gha”. Le et al., (2016) estimated that “land degradation hotspots cover about 29% of global land area and are happening in all agro-ecologies and land cover types”, but again this number should be only considered within the context of the measures used. The report by the Institute for Sustainable Development mentions that 25% of the total land area across the globe is degraded with 3.2 billion people directly affected by land degradation.

Recently, a new, integrated approach was proposed by Kulmala (2018) who suggested that we chronically need a global network of permanent and standardized monitoring stations to help increase the accuracy of estimates of climate and environment changes. Sustainable development will not be possible without scientific monitoring systems, engineered to work at scale and deliver accurate, decision-ready data (Espey, 2019).

To systematically combat Land Degradation, the UN has established several special entities, including UNCCD, that have, for years, worked on methodologies for monitoring land degradation and reaching Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) i.e. at least preventing any further massive land degradation. The LDN programme offers a global default 3-indicator framework that defines land degradation based on measurable (concrete) variables:

  1. Loss in natural habitat / productive land: measured as land cover class change in the land cover & land use maps.
  2. Loss in net primary productivity of plants: measured in t/ha/year.
  3. Loss in above and below ground biomass: measured in t/ha/year.

The methodology to assess land degradation (at national and regional level) is explained in detail in the LDN Good Practice Guidelines document. National and regional users are strongly encouraged to use other metrics to contextualize degradation to their specific countries and concerns, and to create measurement and monitoring frameworks to set targets and track progress where possible.

Land cover / primary productivity dynamics in maps

Some global reference datasets that portray land cover dynamics of the global land mass, and which are used by LDN and similar projects include (in no specific order):

Image: Example of time lapse visualization: expansion of Beijing from 1992 to 2019 as seen using ESACCI-LC land cover time-series data shown in the OpenLandMap.org data portal.

The recently published HILDA+ dataset (Winkler et al, 2021) currently covers the longest period of time (70 years) i.e. it basically visualizes most of the tropical forest loss and urbanization processes in the world. Some examples of visualizations of HILDA+ are given below.

Image: HILDA+ dataset (Winkler et al, 2021) showing changes in the tropical forest cover for Latin America from 1960 to 2019. Visualize HILDA+ in OpenLandMap.org.

The visualization below shows fitted NDVI trends (regression slope) based on the 20-years of NDVI time-series data (2000–2019) for Continental Europe (Witjes et al, 2021). A regression line can be fitted to estimate the general trend of change, which then on average can show where the trends are positive and where they are negative.

Image: Example of a trend-function fitted using NDVI time-series data (20 years; 4 seasons per year) for a single pixel (spatial resolution 30 by 30 m). This specific pixel in Sweden shows gradual improvements in NDVI. After Witjes et al, (2021).

Note: estimating the general trend of primary productivity is often not a trivial task. There are many processes in ecosystems which are sudden and drastic e.g. forest fires, floods etc, but in a resilient ecosystem these can be recovered relatively quickly. The plots above show some examples of relatively smooth positive increases in NDVI, but any interpretation of primary productivity trends is climate / habitat zone specific and depends on the time-scale. That is, every climate zone and land use class will have a somewhat different NDVI signature, which needs to be classified as like with like, as their usual spectral character/signature ought determine if a change can be classified as land restoration or degradation.

In summary, thanks to the Earth Observation programmes such as NASA/USGS Landsat, MODIS and GEDI, ESA’s Sentinel and JAXA’s ALOS programmes, we now can detect major land degradation hotspots and monitor land losses trends more objectively than 20–30 years ago. Land degradation is still a complex feature to map (for an in-depth discussion see: Anderson & Johnson, 2016), but we are getting better at it and have a clearer picture than ever of the scale of the mostly inadvertent damage done.

Land potential and land restoration

The term “land potential” or “land resource potential” indicates the realistic maximum or optimum benefits that a piece of land can offer in terms of highest achievable primary productivity, above and below ground biomass, biodiversity, and habitat resilience (e.g. assuming given soil, climate, organisms, land shape/form, geology and age). It is, in short, an estimate of what a location could become, if we could somehow help to speed up the accumulation processes of natural ecosystems. It is a somewhat theoretical concept that is often not trivial to either define or to validate, so sometimes the best we can do is to use relevant examples from a similar ecological region (similar climate, terrain, soils etc) and then assume that this is the target land potential that could be scaled up to large areas (Hengl et al. 2018). It is, in essence, best viewed as a template for design.

Land potential can also be mapped, but validation is often cumbersome, especially if it takes decades until an optimum that confirms the prediction is affirmed. Despite these challenges, many projects have produced maps and tools for mapping land potential (unsorted):

  • NatureMap.Earth project: shows maps of natural resources, including a global map of potential natural vegetation and habitat types (Jung et al, 2020),
  • AgEvidence: is a database of nearly 300 peer-reviewed research papers from 1980 with more than 22,000 data points produced by the TNC showing all positive cases of regenerative agriculture,
  • Landpotential.org project: provides data portals and mobile phone apps for crowdsourcing the ground data collection and serving estimates of land potential,
  • FAO’s Soil carbon sequestration map: shows estimates of potential increase in soil carbon assuming some logical and inexpensive changes in conservation agriculture,
Image: A global map of Potential Natural Vegetation (PNV) or what “Earth without (ignorant) people” could look like shown in the NatureMap.Earth viewer. To download the map use: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3631253. Compare with the actual vegetation map for 2018. A map of potential biomes is available here.

Land restoration is the polar opposite of land degradation. In a way, terrestrial ecosystems (unless whole species have been destroyed and made extinct) eventually accumulate enough structure, order and diversity that they achieve a “stable state” (natural habitats mentioned before). These natural processes usually take 100’s to 10,000’s of years, which is beyond a meaningful time frame relative to our own life-cycle. Our technology and innovative brains, however, can be used to accelerate land restoration and possibly compress thousands of years into decades. We can step in, and with relatively little effort (but a LOT of understanding) help ecosystems accumulate and stabilize again.

Projects where technology and land management techniques are used to return ecosystem resilience, primary productivity and above and below ground biomass can be referred to as the “land restoration projects”. The International Resource Panel (IRP) under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme gives an overview of the main principles of land restoration in their report: “Land Restoration for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals”.

The basic steps of land restoration are usually:

  1. Identify and locate specific land restoration hotspots or priority areas,
  2. Determine the land potential of an area (assuming a given preferred land use system),
  3. Produce a plan for long-term / short-term phases of land restoration, confirm a budget and returns,
  4. Implement land restoration through positive actions such as terracing, building of irrigation systems, planting, and systematic change in land use and similar,
  5. Track changes over annual or shorter periods using landscape Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as primary productivity, protection from erosion, water infiltration, soil carbon sequestration, among others,
  6. Revisit and revise and confirm the trends are positive and the KPI targets are reached.

Large-scale ecosystem restoration projects include the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel, Pakistan’s “Billion Tree Tsunami”, restoration of the Loess Plateau of China, to mention just a few of the best known. The animation below shows improvements in the vegetation cover in the Xihaigu province of China.

Image: Massive restoration of the Loess plateau in China as seen on the HILDA+ time-series. Grey-colored pixels represent barren areas i.e. areas that have been converted to natural vegetation or croplands / pastures.

So, certainly there are already thoughts about where some of the most important land restoration hotspots are, and what the planet could look like in some future “positive projection”. Where it gets somewhat complicated is that we need to deal with three intertwined problems at the same time: (1) global deforestation / loss of biodiversity habitat, (2) global warming (3) food, fibre and water production. This means, all designs must address these multiple objectives. It also means, the idea of pure Nature without humans is of little to no use to us in this pursuit. Additionally, with global warming, vegetation (e.g. forest and pasture species) are migrating towards geographical locations with more suitable climate! Hence any land potential / land restoration plans need to also be dynamic and provide e.g. short term steps within a long-term scenario.

Halting land degradation in action

In the previous sections we discussed what land degradation is and its antipodes: land potential and land restoration. We list here the currently known, best-bet solutions and strategies for mitigating global warming and similar environmental degradation problems. These consist of the following impactful and action-oriented initiatives (unsorted and assuming some overlap):

  • Conservation and restoration of tropical forest ecosystems / prevention of illegal deforestation,
  • Conservation and restoration of wetlands, peats and mangroves,
  • Prevention of desertification and soil erosion through irrigation and massive planting of grasses, shrubs and trees,
  • Prevention of soil erosion in complex terrains through building of terracing and water infiltration systems for improved water management in upper and lower catchments,
  • Conservation or regenerative agriculture practices,
  • Massive-scale agroecological systems such as agroforestry and permaculture,
  • Improvements in soil properties especially soil organic carbon, nutrient cycling and water retention,

Simple and systematic land restoration and changes in how we grow and harvest crops, might also play a major role in reversing carbon emissions and mitigating global warming as a solution to global warming. Bossio et al (2020) analyzed global land data and concluded that soil carbon sequestration is about 25% of the potential of natural climate solutions. Sha et al, (2022) analyzed global carbon sequestration potential and concluded that location-specific optimal land management practices can help substantially increase carbon sequestration potential of terrestrial vegetation. Likewise, agro-forestry has enormous potential for preserving landscapes, while feeding people and generating income at the same time (Plieninger et al, 2020).

Here three things need to be emphasized however: (1) reforestation e.g. planting 1 trillion trees is in general a good initiative as long it is applied systematically with proper ecological engineering, (2) agriculture has a major role in mitigating climate change, but transition to sustainable (or even regenerative) agriculture might take decades, (3) the world needs a new green economy to replace the existing natural resource exploitation-based economy.

Many of the strategies listed above probably can not be implemented without international agreements, so yes: land restoration and ecosystem recovery are also largely a question of geopolitics. But regardless of geopolitics, all restoration efforts, even failed efforts, are noble goals worthy in themselves.

Land restoration culture and systematic shift from “business as usual”

Once we degrade an ecosystem to the level of no-possible-self repair, we end up breaking the very systems that keep us alive and society thriving. Over a long enough time-frame, however, our self-destructive actions are irrelevant. The planet’s biosphere will “heal” and evolution will move on. It happened countless times already. But our civilization? It might be also damaged beyond repair along with everything we recognize as ‘our version’ of the biosphere. Just another geological epoch buried under the next.

Some consider the problem of global ecosystem degradation primarily a problem of the current mainstream world economy: natural resource exploitation-based for-profit liberal capitalism. Is the modern economy basically a prolonged self-destruction? By reviewing the plots in Ripple et al. (2019) one could conclude that any business-as-usual world economy will certainly bring us to the brink of extinction. Although it seems that we potentially have all the technology and knowledge to transition to a “better” greener economy, it could very well be that it will eventually require that we entirely give up on GDP growth in a few decades time (Meadows & Randers, 2012). Indeed, GDP should never be more important than the future of our children.

Or is there a smooth transition + adaptation path where we do not have to immediately stop flying, driving, farming animals, using plastic? In the end, we need an economy to prepare for adaptation. Are there faster and more efficient solutions to address global warming and too much CO2 in the atmosphere? And how can we establish an objective system that tracks and reports on the status of the environment without too much controversy? There are many open questions that exceed the length of this blog.

The bottom line is that we most likely have to systematically shift education and our culture from consumption societies and environmental-degradation-ignorance to a land restoration culture. An accumulative culture. One that not only refills the ecological bucket, but dares to grow it larger. If the next generation of young people (call it: #GenerationRestoration) learn, already in primary school, how to efficiently detect ecosystem problems, grow plants, and understand ecological cycles from local to global, it would probably be our best investment in the future.

How to get involved?

How can we all contribute (locally, regionally, globally) to preventing massive extinction of species (including humans!) in the future? If you are concerned about the negative trends discussed in this article, and especially if you would like to take action, here are some large-scale initiatives and programmes that you should probably read about:

Many other NGO’s are also deeply concerned about land and habitat restoration: World Wide Fund for Nature, GreenPeace, International Union for Conservation of Nature, International Institute for Sustainable Development, Global Resilience Partnership, to name a few major organizations.

Some on-line tools that can help you visualize, understand land degradation and plan restoration and/or conservation agriculture:

Keep an eye on the Living map of the world established by National Geographic Society, Google and World Resources Institute, and ESA’s World land cover map which will be providing global consistent land cover maps of the world at 10-m spatial resolution in the years to come.

Some organizations and initiatives you could join and get involved in also in the field (unsorted):

Some good popular science readers / illustrated guidelines to help you understand and implement land restoration (unsorted):

Beyond doing the actual work on the ground, it also helps if you simply inform yourself about the actual facts and then consider supporting political programmes that address these issues (and these are not necessarily always and only the “Green” parties).

OpenLandMap.org: viewing the dynamic planet

Large corporations have massive infrastructures to serve information about roads, traffic, shopping (e.g. Google Maps), but we know surprizingly little about the environmental history of our landscapes (call it “landscape memory”): how did the landscape look 20, 50, 100 and 1000 years ago, and what has been lost temporarily or permanently? To address this data gap, OpenGeoHub.org, together with GiLAB.rs and other partners, has been building and maintaining Open global datasets and visualization tools to help inform the general public about the status of our environment called www.OpenLandMap.org (read more about OpenLandMap and Earth Observation / Monitoring systems). One of the main objectives of OpenLandMap.org is to help the public get a better visual idea of the scale of land degradation and to help share information about communicate positive and negative trends. If you discover some interesting patterns on time-series of maps on OpenLandMap and would like to share these with your colleagues, simply copy the URL of the view and share or embed the viewer on your website.

OpenLandMap is a genuine Open Data system with unrestricted access whereno registration is required. If you are a developer you can download the data, build your own solutions or build upon our infrastructure. We currently host and serve about 3TB with most of the data available as Cloud-Optimized GeoTIFFs which means that you can access and query this data as a spatial database. Layers are organized in different topics / groups and can be used as a Web Mapping Service (WMS) service and/or through a REST API. A majority of the layers are also available via the Google Earth Engine.

Are you producing global datasets and would you like to host / publish them on www.OpenLandMap.org? Please send us an email and we can help you prepare and publish your data so it can reach more people and help raise awareness.

Cited references

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Please cite as:

Hengl, T., Wheeler, I., & McMillan, B. et al., (2021, July 1). “Restoration culture: what is land degradation, how to measure it, and what you can do to reverse some negative trends?” Zenodo. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5052657

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