Biomes to Anthromes

Many have debated the semantic tags of “natural” or “pristine” when discussing the physical environment or landscape.  At the heart of this is the reality that humans have long been shaping and outright changing the physical landscape; that there is no true pristine or natural environment in our history or today.  In ecology, discussions and research often do not account for human activities in an inclusive way.  Ecosystems and biomes are often seen as disturbed, disrupted, or destroyed by humans.

Two ecologists set about to change the paradigm from which biomes are viewed as natural systems.  Re-orienting the existing theoretical approach of biogeography, ecology, biology, and more, this new paradigm incorporates the long present human influence in nature.  Using the established ecological tool of the biome, these scientists added the various patterns of human alterations.  Presented in Frontier in Ecology and the Environment, the paper titled, “Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world” is a fascinating read for geographers of every stripe.  It includes an intriguing map of these new regions, along with some other interesting graphics for further investigation.

Following up their 2008 paper, came a 2010 Global Ecology and Biogeography paper titled, “Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000.” As the title declares, this paper is interested in the temporal trends of human alteration.  The results are presented in a series of maps that illustrate the changes to anthromes across the Earth’s surface.  This paper offers striking visuals for the global-scale developments that have been associated with the history of human-environment transformation.

Not only are these papers enthralling reads with provocative visuals, but this new paradigm provides an excellent discussion or lecture topic for any geography class, from the pre-undergrad, to undergrad, to graduate levels.  Among the patterns of anthropogenic biomes are correlations to a myriad of environmental, demographic, economic, urban, and social issues.  Some of the issues that have emerged from discussion are: deforestation; sprawl; changing land-use; technological advancement; environmental limits on settlement or agriculture; regional comparisons; and so on.   By viewing the series of maps, students can interpret patterns, investigate historical and contemporary issues, and draw correlations to many related topics in environmental science and geography.  For the most part, they can do so without much pre-instruction.  The relationships they reveal are often intuitive and amount to a very fulfilling classroom dialogue.  Even the classification of the anthrome regions themselves is an interesting topic for consideration.  Interrogating the legend that accompanies these maps uncovers relationships among changing population patterns and densities, agricultural land-use practices, and the significance of various environments to human practices.  A fun activity is to bring up the serious of maps in power point or Google Earth, to view them sequentially, moving forward and backward, and seeing the change in the patterns on the surface.  Students always gasp at the changes they see in “real-time” and remark at the accelerating pace and spread of some of the world’s anthromes.

Both of these papers are provided and expanded on in the website for the Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology at UMBC.  This website is a great companion for instructors, students, and all other interested parties.  Some of the great downloadable extras are Google Earth maps and educator resources, like power points and educational guides.

To end with a quote:

In this century we need to change the way we educate our children about the biosphere, about the ecology of the world.  We need to think of it as a human ecology.  Ecology in which people interact with nature and that we’re responsible for the way that nature behaves now and we’ll be responsible for the way it behaves in the future.  And if we want to live in an environment that is desirable for all of us, it’s up to all of us to make that happen.  It’s not going to happen out there somewhere; it’s really the nature around us that matters now.”  –  Earl Ellis

Great articles/resources for students:

Keim, Brandon (2010) “Maps: How Mankind Remade Nature” Wired Magazine

Madrigal, Alexis (2008) “Mapping the Humanized World” Wired Magazine

The Encyclopedia of Earth “anthropogenic biomes” Last updated 2010.

Discovery Channel News (2009) “Earth: Human Influence on Ecology Mapped” (video).

Discussion Questions:

  1. Examine the legend associated with the Anthromes map.  Reflect on the organization, order, and naming of each legend item.  What patterns can you see with respect to varying population density, type of agricultural activities, scale of land-use, and utility of diverse environments?
  2. Upon viewing the maps of Anthromes, what can you infer about the relationship between population growth/density and agricultural activity?  Compare and contrast the Europe, East Asia, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa world regions.
  3. Analyze Figure 2(a) from “Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000.”  Describe the trends in the changing proportions of Used, Seminatural and Wild global lands.  Provide some explanations for the scale and pace of these trends.


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