Much of what we know about how humans use land, and how those practices change over time, is informed by local case studies. But determining whether individual case studies are merely anecdotal—or if they can be scaled up to help explain regional or even global land use patterns—can be a challenge.
To reconcile local information with regional–global knowledge, researchers who study land change must also reconcile the diversity of disciplines involved in land change science. From urban economics to geophysics and ecology to geography, each brings with it disparate data types and research questions.
The research approach of synthesis—which “draws upon and distills many sources of data, ideas, explanations, and methods in order to accelerate knowledge production beyond that of less integrative approaches”—is especially useful in this context.
“People who study land use change are often dealing with both quantitative and qualitative data, due to the human component of the field,” said Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, computational research associate at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). “If you’re trying to integrate, for example, satellite remote sensing imagery with farmer surveys, your synthesis techniques will necessarily vary from those used for highly-controlled and standardized field experiments.”
In a new study published in Regional Environmental Change, lead author Magliocca and co-authors map the landscape of synthesis within land change science, and identify specific techniques born of the land change community that are specifically designed to integrate these types of diverse data sets. The study tasks itself with helping researchers identify which synthesis methods are most appropriate for what they’re trying to do and what type of data they have—and, importantly, with identifying ways to improve upon these methods.
“Synthesis, and meta-studies in particular, are becoming a very popular approach within the land change community,” said Magliocca. “This paper highlights some of the more innovative approaches that enable us to link local observations with regional and global patterns. Considering both at the same time is pretty unique, and pretty powerful.”
Access the article online at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10113-014-0626-8
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.
Top photo: Charles Tilford, Flickr/Creative Commons