“Putting people in the map” A new look at Earth’s biomes

Do you remember biomes? The 10-12 ecological regions of the world classified by predominant vegetation and regional climates? We learned about them in middle school, probably.

Yeah, those look familiar. These biomes for years have been used by ecologists as a basic way to describe the global patterns of ecosystems and have been taught in science classrooms to generations of young students. Recently, two scientists by the names of Ellis and Ramakutty (2008) published a study suggesting we adopt a new way of looking at the earth’s ecosystems, one that “puts people in the map” by defining ecological areas of the world based on the level and type of anthropogenic, or human, influence. These interactions range from the light impacts of indigenous hunter/gatherers to the impacts of urban development and sprawl, and by mapping them the authors hoped to integrate humans into the biosphere. Posted below is the template used in their paper, and a map built using the population densities and land use data for earth’s terrestrial surface.

What Ellis and Ramakutty found, and what the map clearly shows, is that the earth’s ice-free surface is dominated by some level of human influence, approximately three quarters of  it to be more precise. Nearly 90% of the earth’s net primary production (NPP) can be found in anthropogenic biomes, but half of it is located in forested or rangeland biomes that have relatively low population densities. The other half, and one third of the earth’s ice-free surface, occurs within heavily cultivated and populated biomes.  Village biomes were the most extensive of the anthropogenic biomes, while urban biomes covered only 7% of earth’s surface and yet contain 60% of the human population. Overall, cropland and rangeland were the most significant anthropogenic changes to the earth in this study.

Portions of the map, such as the image to the right, are staggering. Displaying land-use in this manner is a novel and educational way of demonstrating that humans surely are an integral part of the biosphere. The map also demonstrates that the earth’s surface, specifically the area inhabited by humans, is a mosaic, a patchwork of heterogenous land use and vegetative cover. It is within this broken quilt that all of our direct interactions with the earth occur, the good and the bad, the constructive and the destructive. The authors attempt to make it clear that their map is not a threatening and leering display of doomed efforts for conservation; rather, they urge that it be used as a call to reevaluate our place on the planet, among scientists and local citizens alike.

To regress slightly from this uplifting note, it cannot be overlooked that wild lands, those untouched by humans, cover 22% of earth’s ice-free surface. Most of this area is located in the least productive parts of the planet, composed primarily of barren land and sparsely tree-covered regions. Because of this, wild lands only represent 11% of the earth’s NPP. This is disheartening news to those who love to see these wild lands on television and for those who wish to visit them, but it does not mean our earth is past the point of no return. Much of the anthropogenic biome map demonstrates humans interacting positively with the earth, in areas of low impact and high NPP.

Another important point this study raises is this: do these “anthromes” make the old-system view of natural biomes obsolete? The authors firmly state that they do not, and that their approach to understanding global ecological processes is merely conceptual, while the standing model of biomes is tested and an accurate predictor for important trends in biodiversity throughout the planet. However, this does not mean the biome method is a more accurate one. What the authors of this have shown is that humans by sheer size and range of impact, deserve to be included in the description and study of earth’s global ecosystem, as well as the management of its biodiversity.

As we progress further into the 21st century we can expect to see many changes in how we live and how the earth is altered by our living on it. Our population size alone will demand a very in-depth consideration of how natural resources should be allocated and the most sustainable ways of achieving current standards of living. Conservative living will never be an unworthwhile pursuit. But the science of conservation must evolve with the knowledge presented in Ellis and Ramakutty’s paper, enough so that it enters the conscience of the public and all those who call this planet home.


Primary Source

Erle C Ellis and Navin Ramankutty. 2008. “Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6, doi: 10.1890/070062.





~ by ntfitzharris on December 7, 2009.

8 Responses to ““Putting people in the map” A new look at Earth’s biomes”

  1. This reminds me a lot of the discussion we had on Tufte at the beginning of the semester when we said that the best figures convey lots of information (sometimes from multiple variables) in a clear way. I think it’s cool here that the authors of this study brought the “human variable” into the study of biomes and that the map of biomes as classified by the “human variable” actually looks like the biomes as classified by “climate and predominate vegetation variable,” although I should not be surprised that the two are correlated.
    What I would like to know is how these scientists defined earth’s NPP. I think this term would be tricky to define, since as we know, the studies of living things, such as our living earth, always continue to surprise us with what we do not know about them. I would like to know how the authors dealt with this trickyness.

  2. I really don’t know too much about this topic, but it reminds me of 2012…you know, the year people say the world will end. It is interesting to see these maps that show how humanity has taken control of nature, dominating nature if you will. But it also seems that nature has a way of fighting back. In the article I found, it says that if we go below the 10/90 level of rain-forest, then human kind will become extinct. The year estimated to happen–2012. That is if we didn’t/don’t make changes in the way we live and consume the earth. I’m not sure what I really believe about 2012, I don’t have any strong inclinations about the rain-forest, and I simply don’t see the earth as something that was made to last forever. However, I think we should be thoughtful in our actions and starting the awareness of our impacts and duty to act responsible during grade school seems like a great idea.


  3. So, if only 22% of earth’s ice-free surface is untouched by humans, I assume this is just on the continents and not the oceans correct? I was wondering what the human impact on the oceans would look like. I found this map. The site talks about how they formed the map and gives a color-coded reference for the level of impact humans are having on the marine environment. So even though we might not live on the ocean, we use it and affect it. Our oceans are in many ways as important as our rain forests. A great deal of Earth’s biodiversity is found in the oceans and our impact on them is something we should be taking into account when we look at how much of the earth we have really touched.

  4. Believe it or not, I did not remember biomes and needed to look it up. That being said, time images of the anthropogenic biomes are staggering, especially the picture of India. It makes you wonder though, with all of the efforts on conservation can we really, meaningfully, decrease our physical foot print on the earth?

  5. One of the more interesting things in my opinion on this topic concerns the ‘untouched’ wild lands of the earth. It seems that people in general seem to very much enjoy viewing these areas on television, while also visiting lush areas such as nature parks in order to sort of step out of the human-dense hustle and bustle of day to day life. The irony in this lies in the fact that by desiring to be a part of these areas, we are taking away the exact thing that we enjoy so much about them, and that is the lack of people. If you were watching a Planet Earth special and saw some tourists meandering around in the background wearing pit helmets and khaki shorts, the credibility and following of the series would certainly plummet. It is interesting to turn the camera lens around and see how many people are actually in these areas attempting to deliver our idealized concept of the ‘natural and untouched’.

  6. Given the current climate talks in Copenhagen this article is very appropriate. I wonder what an anthropomorphic map that described greenhouse gas emissions would look like. Also, I really like your discussion of how this map is a jumping off point for discussion of how we impact the planet through our means of habitation. Something interesting to see is how the exploitation of sparsely inhabited areas by developed countries plays into this. It seems like there would be a disproportionate shift towards the consuming countries away from other regions. I think a time lapsed version of this map over the course of the next twenty years will be very telling of how and who responds to current discussions on international sustainability efforts.

  7. What if we look at the statistics given from a different perspective – only 7% of the world is populated by 60% of the human population. In terms of efficiency of people per square foot of land use, to me, this is phenomenally encouraging.

    We know that the bright red “Urban” areas have had the most impact on the natural biomes. However, I don’t really feel like we’ve sufficiently qualified whether this impact is actually all bad. Now I don’t claim to have any prior knowledge on this topic. But I enjoy – as every other author on this site does – taking a deeper look at the variables and trying to uncover other latent influences or factors that will help us make better decisions. With this in mind, since we as humans prefer density within small areas, I can only think that this will be favorable for us in the long run. In addition, given the current conservation movement, I would guess that we will progress towards leveraging that small 7% of total impact more globally through adaptive lifestyle changes.

  8. “To regress slightly from this uplifting note, it cannot be overlooked that wild lands, those untouched by humans, cover 22% of earth’s ice-free surface.”

    This seems to be a very staggering figure. 22% of the earth’s ice free surface is untouched by humans? It doesn’t seem accurate to me (but again i’m not the one writing the article). Although it seems that this new idea of having anthromes instead of biomes, it doesn’t seem like they would ever completely replace them. Anthromes seem like a really cool way to express population density and traits, it doesn’t seem very effective in expressing what is completely going on. And since population density changes very quickly over certain distances it seems unlikely to replace biomes. But cool idea!

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