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Detecting Human Presence and Influence on Neotropical Forests with Remote Sensing

University Research Priority Program in Global Change and Biodiversity and Department of Geography, University of Zürich, 8057 Zürich, Switzerland
Department of Geography, University College London, and NERC National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO); UCL Dept. of Geography, Office 113, Pearson Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK [email protected]
Laboratoire Evolution et Diversité Biologique (EDB), UMR 5174, CNRS/UPS/IRD, Bâtiment 4R1 118, route de Narbonne, 31062 Toulouse, France
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Remote Sens. 2018, 10(10), 1593;
Received: 30 June 2018 / Revised: 17 September 2018 / Accepted: 27 September 2018 / Published: 5 October 2018
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Remote Sensing of Tropical Forest Biodiversity)
The Amazon, and Neotropical forests, are one of the most important global biomes because of their extent and unique biodiversity, as well as their importance to global climate and as a habitat and resource for humans. Unravelling the influence of human presence on these forests is fundamental to our understanding of the biodiversity, ecosystem function, and service-providing potential. Human presence in these tropical rainforests dates back 13,000 years, and the impacts of this presence are hotly debated. Some authors suggest persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on current Amazonian forest composition. Other authors suggest that post-Columbian influence on forest composition is orders of magnitude higher than that of pre-Columbian times. Evidence from remote sensing has become increasingly useful as a way to help settle these debates. Here we review past, current, and future uses of remote sensing technology to detect human infrastructure in the Amazon and other Neotropical forests over the several historical periods of human presence, from archaeological to post-modern societies. We define human presence in terms of activities that left behind a footprint, such as settlements, earth-mounds, roads, use of timber and fuelwood, agriculture, soil, etc. Lastly, we discuss opportunities and challenges for the use of remote sensing to provide data and information necessary to expand our understanding of the history of human occupation in the Neotropical forests, and how this human occupation might affect biodiversity. There have been many recent applications of remote sensing to the detection of Pre-Columbian human infrastructure, from visual inspection of aerial photographs over deforested sites to uses of LiDAR on airborne and UAV platforms to detect infrastructure and smaller settlements under the canopy. Similar efforts are yet to be conducted for the Post-Columbian period, especially during the colonization and imperialism periods. Finally, our knowledge of human impacts in the modern era (20th and 21st centuries) is not-surprisingly more extensive. Remote sensing is still under-used and extremely useful for this type of application, and new missions might provide solutions that were unavailable before. Yet systematic ground surveys are irreplaceable, and detection accuracies of human presence from the combination of remote sensing and ground surveys need to be improved. It is vital therefore to understand how Neotropical forest biodiversity has developed in the presence of people in the past, the implications of this for predicting future directions of change in the Amazon and elsewhere. View Full-Text
Keywords: humans; infrastructure; biodiversity; optical remote sensing; LiDAR and SAR; history humans; infrastructure; biodiversity; optical remote sensing; LiDAR and SAR; history
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Santos, M.J.; Disney, M.; Chave, J. Detecting Human Presence and Influence on Neotropical Forests with Remote Sensing. Remote Sens. 2018, 10, 1593.

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