Landscape Ecology Essay

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The science of landscape ecology is a comparatively young knowledge discipline that is concerned with the variation in types of landscape or land cover and the implications that this variation has on human settlement, land use, and planning. Landscape ecology and the tools it provides may be used as a means of envisioning and conducting spatial planning through such parameters as heterogeneity, fragmentation, and connectivity. Heterogeneity refers to the degree to which different types of land cover exist within a particular area. Fragmentation refers to the degree to which individual areas of heterogeneous land are or become insufficiently large to maintain the biodiversity that might otherwise obtain. Connectivity refers to the extent to which heterogeneous or fragmented pieces of land with similar land cover may be linked to each other at different scales.

Landscape ecology techniques are used in urban and spatial planning to help integrate people into the landscape with a view to minimizing energy use and hence promoting resource efficiency. In doing this, techniques from a wide range of other disciplines are employed and integrated, including zoology, botany, geology, and sociology, among others. The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has become a very important tool for landscape ecologists and much of the practical work of the discipline is focused on accurate data collection, management, and analysis.

Landscape ecologists frequently concentrate on the borders between different areas of land. These borders may be termed ecotones as they mark the distinction between different types of land cover or other environmental difference. The ecotone might be obvious and distinct in nature or else gradual and “fuzzy”-as in hard to discern where one area of land begins or ends. In some cases, ecotones arise naturally, for example through a sudden change in altitude or a water barrier; in other cases, the ecotone might have been man-made, as in the case of a stretch of farmland or the presence of a herd of livestock.

Different ecotones may support different forms of flora and fauna, although some may be held in common. An ecotone that occupies a significant portion of land might support biodiversity that is not supported in the neighboring areas of land. Ecotones are important in providing possibly diverse sources of food and make good habitats, especially for species that are nomadic and can follow the ecotone as it moves in response to environmental or climatic change. This phenomenon has been used to explain the rise and fall of empires created by the nomads of the Asian steppes by identifying the motivation for the nomads to expand away from their traditional lands.

Studying the formation and movement of ecotones and related phenomena requires extensive, long-term analysis of the earth’s surface and this in turn requires cooperation from many states in providing access to data on land use and cover within their jurisdiction. This can be problematic when secretive or security-conscious states are unwilling to yield such data. Global coverage of the earth’s surface by satellites can partly resolve this problem but will not necessarily promote scientific cooperation and understanding.

One large-scale landscape ecology mapping project that has already been completed is the MultiResolution Land Characteristics Consortium (MRLC). Begun in 1992, this project mapped the landscape ecology of 48 U.S. states. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the U.S. Government conducted the project in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Atmospheric and Space Administration (NASA). The effort required to complete the task was considerable and it has yet to be extended around the world at a sufficient level of detail.

Techniques within landscape ecology include the mapping of gradient change, multivariate analysis of resource usage within patches of land and the identification of fragmentation of land use and connectivity between different patches of land. Many complex statistical techniques are being employed in this field of research. Additionally, it has become increasingly evident that spatial patterns are dynamic rather than static and, hence, it is necessary to integrate temporal change into spatial change patterns. Unfortunately, accurate measurements have only started to be taken in recent years and so it will only be possible to develop a comprehensive database of land use and change from a point after which rapid climatic change has already begun. Consequently, understanding past patterns of use will only be possible through the use of recreation and simulation.

The principles and techniques of landscape ecology have been facilitated by the introduction of modern technologies such as aerial and satellite-enhanced mapping techniques. In addition the enormous increase in the scope and capacity of computational power has made large-scale analysis possible. Even so, these innovations are only starting to be integrated into the discipline. Research is still being aimed in part at determining what can be done and how it should be managed. Concepts such as metapopulations, source-sink models, and percolation are being explored in this sense with a view to understanding how they can be used to help plan the use of space efficiently.

As global climate change has an increasingly negative impact upon the use of the land, with growing populations making more intensive use of fresh water resources, it will become more important to understand in what ways-if at all-it will be possible to improve land use planning. Of course, it may be found that improvements in planning will be insufficient to cater for the increased demand for land and its resources.

Landscape ecology can help in forestry management and in the management of many forms of land cover. Previously most environmental management programs tended to be fairly small-scale in nature and generally focused on specific sites or issues. Landscape ecology has helped to demonstrate the interconnections between land use in patches of land that may be widely spread. Indeed, it has become increasingly clear that the environment of the whole world (and the atmosphere beyond it) is part of a single and to some extent self-regulating system in which change at any one point may bring about change in other points. Solving environmental problems can only be meaningfully undertaken with an understanding of the holistic nature of the global environment. This means that environmental issues can only rarely if at all be tackled without a crossborder perspective and international cooperation. The need for internationalized responses to environmental issues is becoming increasingly evident.


  1. Almo Farina, Principles and Methods in Landscape Ecology: Towards a Science of Landscape,2nd (Springer, 2006);
  2. Daniel Franco et , “The Evaluation of a Planning Tool through the Landscape Ecology Concepts and Methods,” Management of Environmental Quality (v.16/1, 2005);
  3. Monica Turner, R.H. Gardner, and R.V. O’Neill, Landscape Ecology in Theory and Practice: Pattern and Process (Springer, 2003);
  4. John Wiens et al., eds., Foundation Papers in Landscape Ecology (Columbia University Press, 2006).

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