Land cover refers to the physical and biological cover over the surface of land, including water, vegetation, bare soil, and/or artificial structures.

Land use is a more complicated term. Natural scientists define land use in terms of syndromes of human activities such as agriculture, forestry and building construction that alter land surface processes including biogeochemistry, hydrology and biodiversity. Social scientists and land managers define land use more broadly to include the social and economic purposes and contexts for and within which lands are managed (or left unmanaged), such as subsistence versus commercial agriculture, rented vs. owned, or private vs. public land.

While land cover may be observed directly in the field or by remote sensing, observations of land use and its changes generally require the integration of natural and social scientific methods (expert knowledge, interviews with land managers) to determine which human activities are occurring in different parts of the landscape, even when land cover appears to be the same. For example, areas covered by woody vegetation may represent an undisturbed natural shrubland, a forest preserve recovering from a fire (use = conservation), regrowth following tree harvest (forestry), a plantation of immature rubber trees (plantation agriculture), swidden agriculture plots that are in between periods of clearing for annual crop production, or an irrigated tea plantation.

Land-use denotes how humans use the biophysical or ecological properties of land. Land-uses include the modification and/or management of land for agriculture, settlements, forestry and other uses including those that exclude humans from land, as in the designation of nature reserves for conservation.

It is often impossible to observe land-use by examining only land-cover by remote sensing as illustrated in the figure. For example, the land-cover type of trees might indicate a land-use type of plantation or a land-use type of conservation.

Citation: Erle Ellis (Lead Author);Robert Pontius (Topic Editor) “Land-use”. In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth August 6, 2010; Last revised Date August 6, 2010; Retrieved

via Land-use.