Changes in Gulf Coast land cover reported

Evolution at this scale happens without the consequence of men, but the progress of man and society exacts its own changes on the world.

Nothing remains as it was. Great plains that once stretched for miles untouched by plow or highway have, in recent times, become the bread basket of modern agriculture. Urban centers sprawl where wetlands once supported migrating man and animal. Subdivisions and shopping malls stand where forests were once thick and dark and tall.

It's been said that rent and taxes are two things that never change, but evolution changes everything. Rents go up, houses burn down and taxes turn into tribute. Winters get colder then warmer, rains come and go, mountains rise and fall like the tides of the ocean, and the universe gets ever larger as it expands through the depths of infinite space.

Evolution at this scale happens without the consequence of men, but the progress of man and society exacts its own changes on the world.

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Take for example changes noted in the recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Gulf of Mexico Regional Land Cover Change Report that indicates 13 percent of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico region saw changes to its land cover  ̶  paved surfaces, trees, forests, grasses, and wetlands  ̶  within a short period of only 14 years.

"People know the region is changing, but it is hard to pinpoint the extent. This report provides an overview of that information with numbers, graphics, and maps," said Nate Herold, project coordinator at the NOAA Office for Coastal Management. "Communities can use this information to see how previous land use decisions and changes in climate affect land cover, and help make informed decisions about the future."

Herold says the Gulf regional study is part of a new group of NOAA nationwide reports showing that between 1996 and 2010, 64,967 square miles in coastal regions — an area the size of Florida — experienced changes in land cover, including a decline in wetlands and forest cover, with development a major contributing factor.

Displaced farmland

Herold said the report does not detail how many acres of farmland may have been lost or gained as a result of these changes. The study recorded the physical land types of the region and not how the land is used, but other reports indicate many farm acres were displaced in recent years, the result of expanding urban development.

The most recent National Resources Inventory (NRI), covering the 25-year period between 1982 and 2007, reveals that more than 23 million acres of America’s agricultural land have been lost to development—an area the size of Indiana. The NRI, conducted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in cooperation with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, is a survey of the nation’s non-federal lands that tells the story of farmland loss by the numbers.

That trend shows no sign of decline. In fact, in the NOAA report released last month, the Gulf coast region added more than 1,536 square miles of development, the equivalent of one football field every 10 minutes. The counties surrounding Houston, Texas; Orlando and Fort Meyers, Florida; and McAllen, Texas (along the Mexican border), are areas of high increasing growth and represent the greatest level of land change in the coastal region.

The region lost 1,794 square miles of wetlands over 15 years, and 798 square miles of wetlands were gained, representing a net loss of 996 square miles of wetlands present in 1996. Wetlands loss was largely due to water and development. Coastal areas in Louisiana, western Alabama, the Orlando–Tampa corridor and Fort Myers in Florida, were all areas with noted losses.

The Gulf of Mexico experienced a net loss of 8,706 square miles of forest cover (13,225 square miles of forests changed to other types of land cover while 4,519 square miles of forest were regrown). Most of these changes occurred in areas dominated by upland forest types, away from the immediate coast and the largest urban centers.

The Gulf of Mexico Regional Land Cover Change Report provides information about the data sets that cover all the coastal portions of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the Gulf shore of Florida, and a portion of southwestern Georgia that drain away from the Atlantic Coast. The report is based on land cover change data from the NOAA Coastal Change Analysis Program. Land cover data are obtained and analyzed approximately every five years using satellite-based image data.

Overall, 8.4 percent of the nation’s ocean and Great Lakes coastal regions experienced these changes. The five regional reports provide information about the data sets that cover the nation’s ocean and Great Lakes coastal regions: West Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, Northeast, and Southeast. The reports identify a wide variety of land cover changes that can increase a community’s vulnerability to impacts from climate change, such as loss of coastal barriers to sea level rise and storm surge.

The land cover report and data can be found at http://www.coast.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/publications/regional-land-cover-change and http://www.coast.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/data/ccapregional.

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