Environmental Impacts of Urban Growth

Research Summary

We explore and quantify the manifold impacts of urbanization on ecosystems and the services they provide.

In determining the effects of urbanization on the environment we draw data from weather stations, field interviews, satellite images, and governmental records.  We develop new algorithms for processing this data, apply spatial statistical analysis to discover trends, and use coupled human–environment system models to predict future impacts.

Recent Findings

The conversion of Earth’s land surface to urban uses is one of the most irreversible human impacts on the global biosphere. It hastens the loss of highly productive farmland, affects energy demand, alters the climate, modifies hydrologic and biogeochemical cycles, fragments habitats, and reduces biodiversity (Seto et al., 2011)  We see these effects on multiple levels.  Future urbanization will, for example, pose direct threats to high-value ecosystems: the highest rates of land conversion over the next few decades will likely take place in biodiversity hotspots that were relatively undisturbed by urban development in 2000 (Seto et al., 2012). Within cities, the nature of urban growth is also an important determinant of urban dwellers’ vulnerability to environmental stress (Güneralp and Seto, 2008).

The environmental impacts of urban expansion reach far beyond urban areas themselves.  In rapidly urbanizing areas, agriculture intensifies on remaining undeveloped land and is likely to expand to new areas, putting pressure on land resources (Jiang et al., 2013). Furthermore, urban areas change precipitation patterns at scales of hundreds of square kilometers (Kaufman et al., 2007.  Urban expansion will affect global climate as well.  Direct loss in vegetation biomass from areas with high probability of urban expansion is predicted to contribute about 5% of total emissions from tropical deforestation and land-use change (Seto et al., 2012). The scope and scale of these impacts is yet to be fully researched.  Although many studies have described how urbanization affects CO2 emissions and heat budgets, effects on the circulation of water, aerosols, and nitrogen in the climate system are only beginning to be understood (Seto & Shepherd, 2009).

Related Publications

Liu, J., H. Mooney, V. Hull, S. J. Davis, J. Gaskell, T. Hertel, J. Lubchenco, Karen C. Seto, P. Gleick, C. Kremen et al. "Systems integration for global sustainability." Science 347, no. 6225 (2015): 1258832.

Global sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed. Systems integration—holistic approaches to integrating various components of coupled human and natural systems—is critical to understand socioeconomic and environmental interconnections and to create sustainability solutions. Recent advances include the development and quantification of integrated frameworks that incorporate ecosystem services, environmental footprints, planetary boundaries, human-nature nexuses, and telecoupling. Although systems integration has led to fundamental discoveries and practical applications, further efforts are needed to incorporate more human and natural components simultaneously, quantify spillover systems and feedbacks, integrate multiple spatial and temporal scales, develop new tools, and translate findings into policy and practice. Such efforts can help address important knowledge gaps, link seemingly unconnected challenges, and inform policy and management decisions.

J. Liu; H. Mooney; V. Hull; S. J. Davis; J. Gaskell; T. Hertel; J. Lubchenco; Karen C. Seto; P. Gleick; C. Kremen; S. Li
Science 347(6225): 1258832 - 1258832
Creutzig, Felix, Giovanni Baiocchi, Robert Bierkandt, Peter-Paul Pichler, and Karen C. Seto. "Global typology of urban energy use and potentials for an urbanization mitigation wedge." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015): 201315545.

The aggregate potential for urban mitigation of global climate change is insufficiently understood. Our analysis, using a dataset of 274 cities representing all city sizes and regions worldwide, demonstrates that economic activity, transport costs, geographic factors, and urban form explain 37% of urban direct energy use and 88% of urban transport energy use. If current trends in urban expansion continue, urban energy use will increase more than threefold, from 240 EJ in 2005 to 730 EJ in 2050. Our model shows that urban planning and transport policies can limit the future increase in urban energy use to 540 EJ in 2050 and contribute to mitigating climate change. However, effective policies for reducing urban greenhouse gas emissions differ with city type. The results show that, for affluent and mature cities, higher gasoline prices combined with compact urban form can result in savings in both residential and transport energy use. In contrast, for developing-country cities with emerging or nascent infrastructures, compact urban form, and transport planning can encourage higher population densities and subsequently avoid lock-in of high carbon emission patterns for travel. The results underscore a significant potential urbanization wedge for reducing energy use in rapidly urbanizing Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Felix Creutzig; Giovanni Baiocchi; Robert Bierkandt; Peter-Paul Pichler; Karen C. Seto
Pandey, Bhartendu, and Karen C. Seto. "Urbanization and agricultural land loss in India: Comparing satellite estimates with census data." Journal of Environmental Management (2014).

We examine the impacts of urbanization on agricultural land loss in India from 2001 to 2010. We combined a hierarchical classification approach with econometric time series analysis to reconstruct land-cover change histories using time series MODIS 250 m VI images composited at 16-day intervals and night time lights (NTL) data. We compared estimates of agricultural land loss using satellite data with agricultural census data. Our analysis highlights six key results. First, agricultural land loss is occurring around smaller cities more than around bigger cities. Second, from 2001 to 2010, each state lost less than 1% of its total geographical area due to agriculture to urban expansion. Third, the northeastern states experienced the least amount of agricultural land loss. Fourth, agricultural land loss is largely in states and districts which have a larger number of operational or approved SEZs. Fifth, urban conversion of agricultural land is concentrated in a few districts and states with high rates of economic growth. Sixth, agricultural land loss is predominantly in states with higher agricultural land suitability compared to other states. Although the total area of agricultural land lost to urban expansion has been relatively low, our results show that since 2006, the amount of agricultural land converted has been increasing steadily. Given that the preponderance of India’s urban population growth has yet to occur, the results suggest an increase in the conversion of agricultural land going into the future.

Bhartendu Pandey; Karen C. Seto
Güneralp, Burak, Karen C. Seto, and Mahesh Ramachandran. "Evidence of urban land teleconnections and impacts on hinterlands." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 5, no. 4 (2013): 445-451.

That urban and rural places are connected through trade, people, and policies has long been recognized. The urban land teleconnections (ULT) framework aims advancing conventional conceptualizations of urbanization and land. The conceptual framework thus opens way to identify and examine the processes that link urbanization dynamics and associated land changes that are not necessarily colocated. In this paper, we review recent literature on four manifestations of urbanization that, along the lines of the ULT framework, highlight the importance of process-based conceptualizations of urbanization and land along a continuum of land systems. We then discuss potential approaches to improve the knowledge base on how and where urbanization is driving land change.

Burak Güneralp; Karen C. Seto; Mahesh Ramachandran
Jiang, Li, Xiangzheng Deng, and Karen C. Seto. "The impact of urban expansion on agricultural land use intensity in China." Land Use Policy 35 (2013): 33-39.

China’s urbanization has resulted in significant changes in both agricultural land and agricultural land use. However, there is limited understanding about the relationship between the two primary changes occurring to China’s agricultural land – the urban expansion on agricultural land and agricultural land use intensity. The goal of this paper is to understand this relationship in China using panel econometric methods. Our results show that urban expansion is associated with a decline in agricultural land use intensity. The area of cultivated land per capita, a measurement about land scarcity, is negatively correlated with agricultural land use intensity. We also find that GDP in the industrial sector negatively affects agricultural land use intensity. GDP per capita and agricultural investments both positively contribute to the intensification of agricultural land use. Our results, together with the links between urbanization, agricultural land, and agricultural production imply that agricultural land expansion is highly likely with continued urban expansion and that pressures on the country’s natural land resources will remain high in the future.

Li Jiang; Xiangzheng Deng; Karen C. Seto
Land Use Policy 35: 33-39
Fragkias, Michail, José Lobo, Deborah Strumsky, and Karen C. Seto. "Does Size Matter? Scaling of CO2 Emissions and U.S. Urban Areas." PLoS ONE 8, no. 6 (2013): e64727.

Urban areas consume more than 66% of the world’s energy and generate more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the world’s population expected to reach 10 billion by 2100, nearly 90% of whom will live in urban areas, a critical question for planetary sustainability is how the size of cities affects energy use and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Are larger cities more energy and emissions efficient than smaller ones? Do larger cities exhibit gains from economies of scale with regard to emissions? Here we examine the relationship between city size and CO2 emissions for U.S. metropolitan areas using a production accounting allocation of emissions. We find that for the time period of 1999–2008, CO2 emissions scale proportionally with urban population size. Contrary to theoretical expectations, larger cities are not more emissions efficient than smaller ones.

Michail Fragkias; José Lobo; Deborah Strumsky; Karen C. Seto
PLoS ONE 8(6): e64727
Seto, Karen C., and Peter Christensen. "Remote sensing science to inform urban climate change mitigation strategies." Urban Climate 3 (2013): 1-6.

Remote sensing offers unique perspectives to study the relationship between urban systems and climate change because it provides spatially explicit and synoptic views of the landscape that are available at multiple grains, extents, and over time. While remote sensing has made significant advances in the study of urban areas, especially urban heat island and urban land change, there are myriad unanswered science and policy questions to which remote sensing science could contribute. Here we identify several key opportunities for remote sensing science to increase our understanding of the relationships between urban systems and climate change.

Karen C. Seto; Peter Christensen
Urban Climate 3: 1-6
Srinivasan, Veena, Karen C. Seto, Ruth Emerson, and Steven M. Gorelick. "The impact of urbanization on water vulnerability: A coupled human–environment system approach for Chennai, India." Global Environmental Change 23, no. 1 (2013): 229-239.

While there is consensus that urbanization is one of the major trends of the 21st century in developing countries, there is debate as to whether urbanization will increase or decrease vulnerability to droughts. Here we examine the relationship between urbanization and water vulnerability for a fast-growing city, Chennai, India, using a coupled human–environment systems (CHES) modeling approach. Although the link between urbanization and water vulnerability is highly site-specific, our results show some generalizable factors exist. First, the urban transformation of the water system is decentralized as irrigation wells are converted to domestic wells by private individuals, and not by the municipal authority. Second, urban vulnerability to water shortages depends on a combination of several factors: the formal water infrastructure, the rate and spatial pattern of land use change, adaptation by households and the characteristics of the ground and surface water system. Third, vulnerability is dynamic, spatially variable and scale dependent. Even as household investments in private wells make individual households less vulnerable, over time and cumulatively, they make the entire region more vulnerable. Taken together, the results suggest that in order to reduce vulnerability to water shortages, there is a need for new forms of urban governance and planning institutions that are capable of managing both centralized actions by utilities and decentralized actions by millions of households.

Veena Srinivasan; Karen C. Seto; Ruth Emerson; Steven M. Gorelick
Global Environmental Change 23(1): 229 - 239
Güneralp, Burak, and Karen C. Seto. "Futures of global urban expansion: uncertainties and implications for biodiversity conservation." Environmental Research Letters 8, no. 1 (2013): 014025.

Urbanization will place significant pressures on biodiversity across the world. However, there are large uncertainties in the amount and location of future urbanization, particularly urban land expansion. Here, we present a global analysis of urban extent circa 2000 and probabilistic forecasts of urban expansion for 2030 near protected areas and in biodiversity hotspots. We estimate that the amount of urban land within 50 km of all protected area boundaries will increase from 450 000 km2 circa2000 to 1440 000 ± 65 000 km2 in 2030. Our analysis shows that protected areas around the world will experience significant increases in urban land within 50 km of their boundaries. China will experience the largest increase in urban land near protected areas with 304 000 ± 33 000 km2 of new urban land to be developed within 50 km of protected area boundaries. The largest urban expansion in biodiversity hotspots, over 100 000 ± 25 000 km2, is forecasted to occur in South America. Uncertainties in the forecasts of the amount and location of urban land expansion reflect uncertainties in their underlying drivers including urban population and economic growth. The forecasts point to the need to reconcile urban development and biodiversity conservation strategies.

Burak Güneralp; Karen C. Seto
Güneralp, Burak, and Karen C. Seto. "Can gains in efficiency offset the resource demands and CO2 emissions from constructing and operating the built environment?" Applied Geography 32, no. 1 (2012): 40-50.

Urbanization is a demographic, economic, and land transformation process. Building construction and operation are integral aspects of urban land use change and contribute to material and energy resources consumption and the resulting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in urban areas. In this paper, we ask two questions regarding the urbanization process: 1) Do the land, material, and energy use efficiencies associated with the construction and operation of buildings increase over time? 2) Do the gains in resource use efficiencies offset the increases in resource demands due to the magnitude of urbanization? To answer these questions, we use a systematic approach similar to a material flow analysis and apply it to the Pearl River Delta, a rapidly urbanizing region in China. We use a combination of satellite data and official statistics to evaluate changes in urban population density and building density from 1988 to 2008. Both density measures decrease from 1988 to 2003; after 2003, building density increases while population density continues to decline. We also track the indirect impacts of urban land expansion on material and energy demands and associated CO2 emissions using concrete and heating/cooling as proxies for building construction and operation, respectively. Throughout the study period, structural changes and efficiency gains decrease the demand per unit floor area for both building materials and energy. However, the efficiency gains are outstripped by the magnitude of urban expansion, therefore leading to an increase in the demand for resources and CO2 emissions per capita. Our results show that focusing only on gains in efficiency for individual buildings without considering the scale of urban expansion results in underestimate of the cumulative energy, material, and greenhouse gas emissions impacts of urbanization. We emphasize the distinction between the rates versus the accumulations of these impacts over spatial and temporal scales. We discuss the relevance of the Environmental Kuznets approaches to tackling environmental impacts that are cumulative in nature and may lead to irreversible changes in the environment. We conclude that tracking the energy, materials, and emissions impacts of urbanization requires a multi-scale approach that ranges from the individual building to the urban region.

Burak Güneralp; Karen C. Seto
Applied Geography 32(1): 40-50
Seto, Karen C., Burak Güneralp, and Lucy R. Hutyra. "Global forecasts of urban expansion to 2030 and direct impacts on biodiversity and carbon pools." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2012).

Urban land-cover change threatens biodiversity and affects ecosystem productivity through loss of habitat, biomass, and carbon storage. However, despite projections that world urban populations will increase to nearly 5 billion by 2030, little is known about future locations, magnitudes, and rates of urban expansion. Here we develop spatially explicit probabilistic forecasts of global urban land-cover change and explore the direct impacts on biodiversity hotspots and tropical carbon biomass. If current trends in population density continue and all areas with high probabilities of urban expansion undergo change, then by 2030, urban land cover will increase by 1.2 million km2, nearly tripling the global urban land area circa 2000. This increase would result in considerable loss of habitats in key biodiversity hotspots, with the highest rates of forecasted urban growth to take place in regions that were relatively undisturbed by urban development in 2000: the Eastern Afromontane, the Guinean Forests of West Africa, and the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka hotspots. Within the pan-tropics, loss in vegetation biomass from areas with high probability of urban expansion is estimated to be 1.38 PgC (0.05 PgC yr−1), equal to ∼5% of emissions from tropical deforestation and land-use change. Although urbanization is often considered a local issue, the aggregate global impacts of projected urban expansion will require significant policy changes to affect future growth trajectories to minimize global biodiversity and vegetation carbon losses.

Karen C. Seto; Burak Güneralp; Lucy R. Hutyra
Seto, Karen C., Anette Reenberg, Christopher G. Boone, Michail Fragkias, Dagmar Haase, Tobias Langanke, Peter J. Marcotullio, Darla Munroe, Branislav Olah, and David Simon. "Urban land teleconnections and sustainability." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencies of the United States of America 109, no. 20 (2012): 7687-7892.

This paper introduces urban land teleconnections as a conceptual framework that explicitly links land changes to underlying urbanization dynamics. We illustrate how three key themes that are currently addressed separately in the urban sustainability and land change literatures can lead to incorrect conclusions and misleading results when they are not examined jointly: the traditional system of land classification that is based on discrete categories and reinforces the false idea of a rural–urban dichotomy; the spatial quantification of land change that is based on place-based relationships, ignoring the connections between distant places, especially between urban functions and rural land uses; and the implicit assumptions about path dependency and sequential land changes that underlie current conceptualizations of land transitions. We then examine several environmental “grand challenges” and discuss how urban land teleconnections could help research communities frame scientific inquiries. Finally, we point to existing analytical approaches that can be used to advance development and application of the concept.

Karen C. Seto; Anette Reenberg; Christopher G. Boone; Michail Fragkias; Dagmar Haase; Tobias Langanke; Peter J. Marcotullio; Darla Munroe; Branislav Olah; David Simon
Little, Eliza, Roberto Barerra, Karen C. Seto, and Maria Diuk-Wasser. "Co-occurrence patterns of the dengue vector Aedes aegypti and Aedes mediovitattus, a dengue competent mosquito in Puerto Rico." EcoHealth 8, no. 3 (2011): 365-375.

Aedes aegypti is implicated in dengue transmission in tropical and subtropical urban areas around the world. Ae. aegypti populations are controlled through integrative vector management. However, the efficacy of vector control may be undermined by the presence of alternative, competent species. In Puerto Rico, a native mosquito, Ae. mediovittatus, is a competent dengue vector in laboratory settings and spatially overlaps with Ae. aegypti. It has been proposed that Ae. mediovittatus may act as a dengue reservoir during inter-epidemic periods, perpetuating endemic dengue transmission in rural Puerto Rico. Dengue transmission dynamics may therefore be influenced by the spatial overlap of Ae. mediovittatus, Ae. aegypti, dengue viruses, and humans. We take a landscape epidemiology approach to examine the association between landscape composition and configuration and the distribution of each of these Aedes species and their co-occurrence. We used remotely sensed imagery from a newly launched satellite to map landscape features at very high spatial resolution. We found that the distribution of Ae. aegypti is positively predicted by urban density and by the number of tree patches, Ae. mediovittatus is positively predicted by the number of tree patches, but negatively predicted by large contiguous urban areas, and both species are predicted by urban density and the number of tree patches. This analysis provides evidence that landscape composition and configuration is a surrogate for mosquito community composition, and suggests that mapping landscape structure can be used to inform vector control efforts as well as to inform urban planning.

Eliza Little; Roberto Barerra; Karen C. Seto; Maria Diuk-Wasser
EcoHealth 8(3): 365-375
Seto, Karen C., and David Satterthwaite. "Interactions between urbanization and global environmental change." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2 (2010): 127-128.

Editorial overview written for issue of Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability entitled “Human settlements and industrial systems.” The overview discusses the confluence of urbanization and global environmental change and introduces articles found in the issue. 

Karen C. Seto; David Satterthwaite
Seto, Karen C., Roberto Sánchez-Rodríguez, and Michail Fragkias. "The new geography of contemporary urbanization and the environment." Annual Review of Environment and Resources 35 (2010): 167-194.

Contemporary urbanization differs from historical patterns of urban growth in terms of scale, rate, location, form, and function. This review discusses the characteristics of contemporary urbanization and the roles of urban planning, governance, agglomeration, and globalization forces in driving and shaping the relationship between urbanization and the environment. We highlight recent research on urbanization and global change in the context of sustainability as well as opportunities for bundling urban development efforts, climate mitigation, and adaptation strategies to create synergies to transition to sustainability. We conclude with an analysis of global greenhouse gas emissions under different scenarios of future urbanization growth and discuss their implications.

Karen C. Seto; Roberto Sánchez-Rodríguez; Michail Fragkias
Seto, Karen C., and Marshall J. Shepherd. "Global urban land-use trends and climate impacts." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 1, no. 1 (2009): 89-95.

In 2008, the global urban population exceeded the nonrural population for the first time in history, and it is estimated that by 2050, 70% of the world population will live in urban areas, with more than half of them concentrated in Asia. Although there are projections of future urban population growth, there is significantly less information about how these changes in demographics correspond with changes in urban extent. Urban land-use and land-cover changes have considerable impacts on climate. It has been well established that the urban heat island effect is more significant during the night than day and that it is affected by the shape, size, and geometry of buildings as well as the differences in urban and rural gradients. Recent research points to mounting evidence that urbanization also affects cycling of water, carbon, aerosols, and nitrogen in the climate system. This review highlights advances in the understanding of urban land-use trends and associated climate impacts, concentrating on peer-reviewed papers that have been published over the last two years.

Karen C. Seto; Marshall Shepherd
Seto, Karen C., Paolo Gamba, and Martin Harold. "Global Urban Issues: A Primer." In Global Mapping of Human Settlements: Experiences, Data Sets, and Prospects, 3-9. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009.

In lieu of an abstract, the following is a chapter excerpt: 

As we enter the 21st century, the world is becoming increasingly urban, both in terms of human population and the Earth’s surface. Although cities have existed for centuries, urbanization processes today are different from those in the past in three significant ways. First, the magnitude of urbanization is extraordinary. The global proportion of urban population was a mere 13% in 1900 (UN, 2006). It rose gradually to 29% in 1950. By 2030, the world’s urban  population is expected to nearly double from 2.86 billion in 2000 to almost 5 billion.
…Second, the rapidity with which landscapes and populations are urbanizing is faster than during other periods in history. China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, regard urbanization as a critical component of their development process and have ambitious goals to build a vast network of new cities to fuel their industrialization goals (Song & Ding, 2007; Kennedy 2007). 
…A third characteristic of the urban transition underway today is that it will take place primarily in Africa and Asia (UN, 2006). Whereas the urbanization levels in the Americas and Europe are already high, 80% in South America and 75–78% in Europe and North America, the urban populations in the continents of Africa and Asia are less than 40% of total population. Over the next two decades, the urban populations of both continents are expected to increase to more than 50%.
Karen C. Seto; Paolo Gamba; Martin Harold
Güneralp, Burak, and Karen C. Seto. "Environmental impacts of urban growth from an integrated dynamic perspective: A case study of Shenzhen, South China." Global Environmental Change 18, no. 4 (2008): 720-735.

China is home to one-fifth of the world’s population and that population is increasingly urban. The landscape is also urbanizing. Although there are studies that focus on specific elements of urban growth, there is very little empirical work that incorporates feedbacks and linkages to assess the interactions between the dynamics of urban growth and their environmental impacts. In this study, we develop a system dynamics simulation model of the drivers and environmental impacts of urban growth, using Shenzhen, South China, as a case study. We identify three phases of urban growth and develop scenarios to evaluate the impact of urban growth on several environmental indicators: land use, air quality, and demand for water and energy. The results show that all developable land will be urban by 2020 and the increase in the number of vehicles will be a major source of air pollution. Demand for water and electricity will rise, and the city will become increasingly vulnerable to shortages of either. The scenarios also show that there will be improvements in local environmental quality as a result of increasing affluence and economic growth. However, the environmental impacts outside of Shenzhen may increase as demands for natural resources increase and Shenzhen pushes its manufacturing industries out of the municipality. The findings may also portend to changes other cities in China and elsewhere in the developing world may experience as they continue to industrialize.

Burak Güneralp; Karen C. Seto
Seto, Karen C., Dennis Ojima, Qingyuan Song, Arvin Mosier, Congbin Fu, John R. Freney, and John W. B. Stewart. "Human drivers of change in the East Asian Monsoon System." In Changes In The Human-Monsoon System Of East Asia In The Context Of Global Change, 335-347. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2008.
Karen C. Seto; Dennis Ojima; Qingyuan Song; Arvin Mosier; Congbin Fu; John R. Freney; John W.B. Stewart
Seto, Karen C., and Michail Fragkias. "Mangrove conversion and aquaculture development in Vietnam: A remote sensing-based approach for evaluating the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands." Global Environmental Change 3-4 (2007): 486-500.

Remote sensing data have been proposed as a potential tool for monitoring environmental treaties. However, to date, satellite images have been used primarily for visualization, but not for systematic monitoring of treaty compliance. In this paper, we present a methodology to operationalize the use of satellite imagery to assess the impact of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The approach uses time series analysis of landscape pattern metrics to assess land cover conditions before and after designation of Ramsar status to monitor compliance with the Convention. We apply the methodology to two case studies in Vietnam and evaluate the success of Ramsar using four metrics: (1) total mangrove extent; (2) mangrove fragmentation; (3) mangrove density; and (4) aquaculture extent. Results indicate that the Ramsar Convention did not slow the development of aquaculture in the region, but total mangrove extent has remained relatively constant, primarily due to replanting efforts. Yet despite these restoration efforts, the mangroves have become fragmented and survival rates for replanting efforts are low. The methodology is cost effective and especially useful to evaluate Ramsar sites that rely mainly on self-reporting methods and where third parties are not actively involved in the monitoring process. Finally, the case study presented in this paper demonstrates that with the appropriate satellite record, in situ measurements and field observations, remote sensing is a promising technology that can help monitor compliance with international environmental agreements.

Karen C. Seto; Michail Fragkias
Kaufman, Robert K., Karen C. Seto, Annemarie Schnieder, Zouting Liu, and Weile Wang. "Climate response to rapid urban growth: Evidence of a human-induced precipitation deficit." Journal of Climate 20, no. 10 (2007): 2299-2306.

The authors establish the effect of urbanization on precipitation in the Pearl River Delta of China with data from an annual land use map (1988–96) derived from Landsat images and monthly climate data from 16 local meteorological stations. A statistical analysis of the relationship between climate and urban land use in concentric buffers around the stations indicates that there is a causal relationship from temporal and spatial patterns of urbanization to temporal and spatial patterns of precipitation during the dry season. Results suggest an urban precipitation deficit in which urbanization reduces local precipitation. This reduction may be caused by changes in surface hydrology that extend beyond the urban heat island effect and energy-related aerosol emissions.

Robert K. Kaufman; Karen C. Seto; Annemarie Schnieder; Zouting Liu; Weile Wang
Journal of Climate 20(10): 2299-2306
Seto, Karen C., E. Fleishman, J. P. Fay, and C. J. Betrus. "Linking spatial patterns of bird and butterfly species richness with Landsat TM derived NDVI." International Journal of Remote Sensing 25, no. 20 (2004): 4309-4324.

The ability to predict spatial patterns of species richness using a few easily measured environmental variables would facilitate timely evaluation of potential impacts of anthropogenic and natural disturbances on biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Two common hypotheses maintain that faunal species richness can be explained in part by either local vegetation heterogeneity or primary productivity. Although remote sensing has long been identified as a potentially powerful source of information on the latter, its principal application to biodiversity studies has been to develop classified vegetation maps at relatively coarse resolution, which then have been used to estimate animal diversity. Although classification schemes can be delineated on the basis of species composition of plants, these schemes generally do not provide information on primary productivity. Furthermore, the classification procedure is a time- and labour-intensive process, yielding results with limited accuracy. To meet decision-making needs and to develop land management strategies, more efficient methods of generating information on the spatial distribution of faunal diversity are needed. This article reports on the potential of predicting species richness using single-date Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) derived from Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM). We use NDVI as an indicator of vegetation productivity, and examine the relationship of three measures of NDVI—mean, maximum, and standard deviation—with patterns of bird and butterfly species richness at various spatial scales. Results indicate a positive correlation, but with no definitive functional form, between species richness and productivity. The strongest relationships between species richness of birds and NDVI were observed at larger sampling grains and extent, where each of the three NDVI measures explained more than 50% of the variation in species richness. The relationship between species richness of butterflies and NDVI was strongest over smaller grains. Results suggest that measures of NDVI are an alternative approach for explaining the spatial variability of species richness of birds and butterflies.

Karen C. Seto; E. Fleishman; J. P. Fay; C. J. Betrus
Seto, Karen C., Robert K. Kaufman, and Curtis E. Woodcock. "Landsat reveals China's farmland reserves, but they're vanishing fast." Nature 406, no. 6792 (2000): 121.

We have compared the official estimates of agricultural land and rates of agricultural land conversion with those derived from Landsat thematic mapper satellite images for 10 counties in the Pearl River Delta, which is one of the fastest-developing regions in China. Ground- based field assessments verify the high accuracy of our techniques in estimating the area of agricultural land and its change through time. Our results indicate that there is significantly more agricultural land than reported in official statistics. Although this underreporting is well documented, particularly using coarse resolution (1-km) satellite data sets, our study is the first to use high-resolution satellite imagery to quantify this bias.

Karen C. Seto; Robert K. Kaufman; Curtis E. Woodcock
Nature 406(6792): 121