Over the hills and further away from coast: Global geospatial patterns of human and environment over the 20th-21st centuries

Matti Kummu, Hans De Moel, Gianluigi Salvucci, Daniel Viviroli, Philip J. Ward, Olli Varis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

126 Citations (Scopus)
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Proximity to the coast and elevation are important geographical considerations for human settlement. Little is known, however, about how spatial variation in these factors exactly relates to human settlements and activities, and how this has developed over time. Such knowledge is important for identifying vulnerable regions that are at risk from phenomena such as food shortages and water stress. Human activities are a key driving force in global change, and thus detailed information on population distribution is an important input to any research framework on global change. In this paper we assess the global geospatial patterns of the distribution of human population and related factors, with regard to the altitude above sea level and proximity to the coast. The investigated factors are physical conditions, urbanisation, agricultural practices, economy, and environmental stress. An important novel element in this study, is that we included the temporal evolution in various factors related to human settlements and agricultural practices over the 20th century, and used projections for some of these factors up to the year 2050. We found population pressure in the proximity of the coast to be somewhat greater than was found in other studies. Yet, the distribution of population, urbanisation and wealth are evolving to become more evenly spread across the globe than they were in the past. Therefore, the commonly believed tendency of accumulation of people and wealth along coasts is not supported by our results. At the same time, food production is becoming increasingly decoupled from the trends in population density. Croplands are spreading from highly populated coastal zones towards inland zones. Our results thus indicate that even though people and wealth continue to accumulate in proximity to the coast, population densities and economic productivity are becoming less diverse in relation to elevation and distance from the coast.

Original languageEnglish
Article number034010
Number of pages15
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 3 Mar 2016
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


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