A changing land

Land cover change maps can help us determine our impact on the land — and how we can mitigate it in the future

  • Apr 12, 2021
  • 477 words
  • 2 minutes
Expand Image

We can tell a lot about how the world changes with land cover change maps, the 2010-2015 update of which was published in November 2020 by the North American Land Change Monitoring System — an initiative of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

These maps tell a story of a changing world, with major events altering the landscape. The large areas around Yellowknife depict land cover transition from forest to mainly grassland and barren lands, thanks to the 2014 forest fires in the surrounding area. Unusually warm conditions and lack of rain triggered more than 130 forest fires in the Great Slave Lake region in the Northwest Territories. The forest fire season for that year has been classified as one of the most extreme in the region over the last three decades, with lasting impacts on vegetation and wildlife as well as human populations.

The maps, created from a composite of images assembled from satellite observations at a 30-metre spatial resolution, are the result of a collaborative effort that harmonized land cover classification systems from Canada, Mexico and the United States — no small feat, according to the team working on the project. 

“We are, in a way, the forum through which the mapping agencies come together,” says Orlando Cabrera-Rivera, head of unit for environmental quality for CEC, which oversees the NALCMS initiative. “We put together the continental product based on what [each organization] is doing at home.”

The goal is to produce a map that’s useful for “addressing issues at the continental level,” says Cabrera-Rivera. 

“Watersheds, ecosystems … they don’t know political boundaries. We need to be managing these at the continental level.”

But Zakir Jafry, environmental information coordinator and GIS specialist at the CEC, says the NALCMS group is very open and collaborative and that all the scientists involved see the bigger picture. 

Jafry also says putting the maps together requires a lot of processing and conversations — sometimes there are “mismatches” in land use designations  that require some back and forth.

“In B.C. and Washington for example, on the B.C. side you have a lot of activity but in Washington it’s just forest,” says Jafry. “In Canada that area is being used for skiing, but in the U.S. it has protective status. We have to adjust those misclassifications.” 

One of the biggest transitions seen in the data is forest loss, which Jafry says is mostly occurring in Canada. 

“Impacts of wildlife, insects, logging … you can see those changes occurring.”

Cabrera-Rivera says now the work begins to see how to use the data to prevent or control changes in the future — to mitigate damages we might be inflicting on the earth. 

“We have to look at these changes and the consequences that they have,” says Cabrera-Rivera. “We’re all connected through the environment in which we live, despite countries and borders.


Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content

People & Culture

With old traditions and new tech, young Inuit chart their changing landscape

For generations, hunting, and the deep connection to the land it creates, has been a mainstay of Inuit culture. As the coastline changes rapidly—reshaping the marine landscape and jeopardizing the hunt—Inuit youth are charting ways to preserve the hunt, and their identity. 

  • 5346 words
  • 22 minutes
historic disease map


Q&A: Tom Koch on disease mapping and medical geography

‘Maps aren't magic,’ says University of British Columbia prof — but during disease outbreaks, they can help us sort good information from bad

  • 778 words
  • 4 minutes


New mangrove forest mapping tool puts conservation in reach of coastal communities

Mangroves provide a range of benefits, including protection from storms and the prevention of coastal erosion

  • 1080 words
  • 5 minutes
Arctic, sea ice, Hudson Bay, scientist, environment, climate change

Science & Tech

How changing sea ice is also changing lives in the North

Inuit hunters and scientists are collaborating to record recent alarming shifts in Hudson Bay sea ice

  • 592 words
  • 3 minutes