Global and regional economic and environmental changes are increasingly influencing local land-use, livelihoods, and ecosystems. At the same time, cumulative local land changes are driving global and regional changes in biodiversity and the environment. To understand the causes and consequences of these changes, land change science (LCS) draws on a wide array synthetic and meta-study techniques to generate global and regional knowledge from local case studies of land change. Here, we review the characteristics and applications of synthesis methods in LCS and assess the current state of synthetic research based on a meta-analysis of synthesis studies from 1995 to 2012. Publication of synthesis research is accelerating, with a clear trend toward increasingly sophisticated and quantitative methods, including meta-analysis. Detailed trends in synthesis objectives, methods, and land change phenomena and world regions most commonly studied are presented. Significant challenges to successful synthesis research in LCS are also identified, including issues of interpretability and comparability across case-studies and the limits of and biases in the geographic coverage of case studies. Nevertheless, synthesis methods based on local case studies will remain essential for generating systematic global and regional understanding of local land change for the foreseeable future, and multiple opportunities exist to accelerate and enhance the reliability of synthetic LCS research in the future. Demand for global and regional knowledge generation will continue to grow to support adaptation and mitigation policies consistent with both the local realities and regional and global environmental and economic contexts of land change.
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