Understanding the Past, Present, and Future of Land Conservation in South Carolina

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Berson, Nicole
GIS; land-use change; conservation; NDVI; Biology; Environmental Sciences; Natural Resources and Conservation
thesis / dissertation description
Urbanization poses a significant challenge for many ecosystems in the United States. However, monitoring its impacts requires extensive data and this lack of up-to-date information makes understanding the impacts of urbanization difficult to assess. One area that has seen tremendous growth is the Interstate 85 (I-85) corridor between Charlotte, NC and Atlanta, GA, which is known as “The Boom Belt.” Unfortunately, due to limited resources from conservation and state agencies, data on land use change and its impacts in this area have not been updated since the early 1990s. To investigate how urbanization is impacting this region, I conducted a comparative analysis that determined how much land within the 12 dominant land cover classes found along the I-85 corridor was converted to urban land from 1992 to 2015. In addition, I examined how expansion of urban areas and loss of land altered the connectivity of these 12 land cover classes across the I-85 corridor. To do this, I compared satellite images from 1992 – selected by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for their Gap Analysis (which represents the most up-to-date assessment of land use in the state) to those from similar seasons in 2015 that cover the exact same geographic areas. Using these satellite images, I then assessed changes in both urban land conversion and habitat connectivity in these 12 land cover classes, by determining if there were shifts in Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) values between 1992 and 2015. Using this approach, I found three interesting results. First, there have been relatively small absolute losses of land in each of my 12 land cover classes. However, I also found that not all classes are being impacted equally by urbanization and that land conversion may be selectively targeting specific land cover classes such as grasslands. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I ii also determined that 10 of the 12 major land cover classes changed in their connectivity from 1992 to 2015 and became increasingly clustered like small, isolated islands along the I-85 corridor. At first glance these findings were somewhat surprising in that they reveal small losses in land to urbanization over the past two decades. However, they also indicate that while these losses are minimal, these minor changes may be occurring disproportionately in some land cover classes and that increasing isolation from other habitats may be an important consequence of land use change in South Carolina.