Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2014, Vol. 24 ›› Issue (4): 746-766.doi: 10.1007/s11442-014-1117-z

• Review Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

A review of historical reconstruction methods of land use/land cover

Yuanyuan YANG1,2,3(), Shuwen ZHANG2,1,*(), Jiuchun YANG2, Liping CHANG2, Kun BU2, Xiaoshi XING3   

  1. 1. College of Earth Science, Jilin University, Changchun 130061, China
    2. Northeast Institute of Geography and Agroecology, CAS, Changchun 130102, China
    3. Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), Columbia University, Palisades, NY 10964, USA;
  • Received:2013-05-28 Accepted:2014-01-22 Online:2014-04-20 Published:2014-04-20
  • Contact: Shuwen ZHANG;
  • About author:

    Author: Yang Yuanyuan (1988-), PhD Candidate, specialized in land use and land cover change. E-mail:

  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China, No.41271416.CAS “Strategic Priority Research Program”, No.XDA05090310


Understanding long-term human-environment interactions requires historical reconstruction of past land-use and land-cover changes. Most reconstructions have been based primarily on consistently available and relatively standardized information from historical sources. Based on available data sources and a retrospective research, in this paper we review the approaches and methods of the digital reconstruction and analyze their advantages and possible constraints in the following aspects: (1) Historical documents contain qualitative or semi-quantitative information about past land use, which also usually include land-cover data, but preparation of archival documents is very time-consuming. (2) Historical maps and pictures offer visual and spatial quantitative land-cover information. (3) Natural archive has significant advantages as a method for reconstructing past vegetation and has its unique possibilities especially when historical records are missing or lacking, but it has great limits of rebuilding certain land-cover types. (4) Historical reconstruction models have been gradually developed from empirical models to mechanistic ones. The method does not only reconstruct the quantity of land use/cover in historical periods, but it also reproduces the spatial distribution. Yet there are still few historical land-cover datasets with high spatial resolution. (5) Reconstruction method based on multiple-source data and multidisciplinary research could build historical land-cover from multiple perspectives, complement the missing data, verify reconstruction results and thus improve reconstruction accuracy. However, there are challenges that make the method still in the exploratory stage. This method can be a long-term development goal for the historical land-cover reconstruction. Researchers should focus on rebuilding historical land-cover dataset with high spatial resolution by developing new models so that the study results could be effectively applied in simulations of climatic and ecological effects.

Key words: review, historical reconstruction, land use, land cover