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News Release 05-040

Geologists Explore Link Between Human Action and Landscape Change

Findings have implications for New England environment

Scientists are comparing historical images to learn about changes in landforms.

Scientists are comparing historical images to learn about changes in landforms.

March 14, 2005

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Ever since we began clearing valleys and slopes for agriculture more than 9,000 years ago, people have been altering landscapes. In the cover article of the April-May issue of GSA Today, geologists affiliated with the University of Vermont (UVM) explored the link between human actions and landscape and found some good news and some bad news.

UVM geologist Paul Bierman and his colleagues—including three undergraduates—searched a web-based community archive of more than 10,000 images of Vermont landscapes from before 1810 to the present. Part of  UVM’s Landscape Change Program, the archive is filled with rare images of rural areas and can be accessed online.

The Landscape Change Program has been supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Lintilac Foundation.

“Our findings have significant environmental implications for Vermont and New England in general,” said Bierman. “We found that erosion is linked to clearing trees from hill slopes, which implies that if New England were cleared of trees, sediment would again pour off slopes and into streams and rivers.” But there's also good news: corridors running along rivers and streams have improved markedly over the past 30 years. “This is a positive environmental finding and one that’s very good for stream health and the health of ecosystems in streams,” he said.

Historical photographs are a powerful tool for examining and understanding the distribution of physical and biological surface processes over the course of decades and centuries. Such imagery is particularly valuable for understanding human-landscape interaction. The new report presents several examples of quantitative, image-based, landscape-scale analyses made using hundreds of different images, each taken at a different place. Numerous photographs that show the same landscape at two different points in time are also available in the archive. These photographic pairs can also be accessed online.

Involving undergraduates in the study was a key aspect of the project. Co-authors and senior students Jehanna Howe, Elizabeth Stanley Mann and  Michala Peabody were funded by an NSF grant for undergraduate research awarded to Bierman and UVM scientist Christine Massey.

“The students are at the core of this work,” Bierman attests.

"NSF encourages scientists from all disciplines to involve undergraduate students in research projects," said Jackie Huntoon, NSF program director for diversity and education in the geosciences.  "Undergraduate students who participate in research are more likely to pursue graduate degrees than are other undergraduates."

GSA Today is published by the Geological Society of America (GSA).



Media Contacts
Cheryl L. Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:
Jeff Wakefield, University of Vermont, (802) 656-5799, email:

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