Incorporating temporality and biophysical vulnerability to quantify the human spatial footprint on ecosystems

Andrés Etter, Clive McAlpine, Leonie Seabrook and Kerrie Wilson

Incorporating temporality and biophysical vulnerability to quantify the human spatial footprint on ecosystems. Biological Conservation. 144:1585-1594.doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.02.004


Land use is a pervasive influence on most terrestrial ecosystems. Humans are converting natural ecosystems and appropriating an increasingly large portion of the net primary productivity of the Earth’s ecosystems, leaving a rapidly expanding footprint on the environment and threatening the functioning of ecosystems and the ecological services they provide. Understanding the impacts of human activities on the environment from a local to a global scale requires an adequate representation of human modified landscapes and an explanation of the relationships between socioeconomic and biophysical factors. A first step towards this objective is the development of a quantitative measure of the spatial footprint of humans on landscapes, which can then be used as an analytical and monitoring tool for global change, biodiversity and ecosystem studies. Existing approaches have been based mainly on geographic proxies of human influence such as population density, land transformation, accessibility and infrastructure. In this paper, we developed a more comprehensive and spatially-explicit footprint index based on three dimensions: land use intensity, intervention time, and biophysical vulnerability, which we then applied to Colombia as a case study. We found the inclusion of the vulnerability index provided an effective means to address regional variability in biophysical responses to land use impacts. Accounting for the duration of human intervention provided new insights into the relative capacity of ecosystems to recover or be restored. From this knowledge, more appropriate land use policies can be developed.

Fig. 3. The spatial footprint indexes and footprint map of Colombia. The Fig. shows the disaggregated footprint indexes for: (a) land use intensity, (b) intervention time and (c) biophysical vulnerability; and (d) the consolidated footprint index (black line – Andean region, white line – National Protected Areas, black dots – main cities).