Reconstructing 17th to early 20th forest cover and land use dynamics in the northeastern US using airborne LiDAR

Authors: William Ouimet*, University of Connecticut, Katharine Johnson, Earth Resources Technology, Inc., Cheyenne Haverfield, University of Connecticut
Topics: Land Use and Land Cover Change, Anthropocene, Geomorphology
Keywords: LiDAR, Anthropocene, historic land use, geomorphology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 5:20 PM / 7:00 PM
Room: Edgewood AB, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The northeastern US experienced a dramatic transformation of widespread 17th to early 20th century deforestation and agriculture associated with European settlement and population growth followed by abandonment and reforestation. High-resolution, publicly available LiDAR point clouds and derivative digital elevation models reveal thousands of abandoned land use features across the region under now-dense forest canopy. The most well-known and widespread examples of these features are stone walls, which indicate areas used for 17th-early 20th century agriculture and pasture, and relict charcoal hearths, which indicate areas of local deforestation for charcoal production. LiDAR-based maps of these relict land use features allow for a direct and widely applicable reconstruction of the extent and fine-scale spatial distribution of historic forest cover and land use practices. Mapping to date, focused throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts, indicates that cumulatively >90% of the total area of some study towns were deforested and cleared, but that the distribution and intensity of historic land use practices was highly variable. Deforested areal totals per town derived from relict land use features in LiDAR data demonstrate excellent agreement with 19th century agricultural census records and historical maps. Overall, LiDAR-based maps of historic forest cover provide a foundation for understanding changes to soils, forest structures and ecology, erosion and sediment transport, and historic climatology. Furthermore, datasets of historic features created through LiDAR analysis aid preservation and conservation efforts by enabling scientists, archaeologists, and concerned groups to locate, research, catalogue and demarcate the features.

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