Landscape Alterations

Sarah Simon

10 min Read Time | November 20th 2022

Key Takeaways

Anthropogenic activities such as settlements, commercial uses, land-use change, and forestry activities are major drivers of landscape alterations. This causes cascading ecosystem changes and regime shifts in ecosystem functioning.

When assessing the impact of landscape alterations, make sure to focus on the environmental impacts to contextualise the impact (i.e., habitat fragmentation and loss, erosion, weathering, and others). Social impacts are covered in a separate topic.

Make sure to analyse the depth, breadth, and persistence of the impact.

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What it is?

“Landscape alteration implies habitat fragmentation, habitat loss (i.e. reduction in the total amount of the habitat), habitat isolation and modification of the structure of the landscape.”

Landscape alteration is caused by a number of activities from different industries. The main anthropogenic activities include agricultural expansion and ranching, mining, exploration, urbanization, project developments such as the building of roads, dams and reservoirs, and others.

The world has lost a third of arable land due to erosion or pollution as global food consumption, industrialisation, and urbanisation soars.

Changes to the land can speed up natural processes such as weathering and erosion. Deforestation can lead to soil and water erosion. Air pollution, causing acid rain, can cause weathering or even break down the Earth’s surface.

Long-lasting impacts, such as oil spills, fertilizers, wastewater, etc. can effectively change the landscape as well. Ecological devastations occur when oil or other toxic substances leak onto land and destroy habitats and suffocate plants, eventually impacting water bodies.

Land use for agricultural purposes has been shown to displace habitats, ultimately leading to biodiversity loss, and ecosystem service degradation while also destroying landscapes.


SDG 15 Life on Land

SDG choice

✅ SDG: 15

✅ Category: Processes

✅ ILG: Healthy Ecosystems

Impact assessment

The topic discusses the impacts of human activities on the landscape, e.g. habitat fragmentation and loss, erosion, and biodiversity loss.

The introduction should be tailored to the context and type of impact being treated.

The core analysis should capture the company’s impact in relation to the broader issue by providing the following information:

  • If applicable, how much of the commodity did the company source? This is likely to be reported in tonnes. Or, if the landscape alternation is linked to a significant event or chain of events as a result of the company’s core operations, document what took place by quantifying the impact.
  • Please make sure to estimate the land used by the company related to its procurement of products.
  • Evaluate the environmental impacts: how are the habitats, ecosystems, and plants affected? Did the land-use change cause soil and water erosion or contamination?
  • Try to be as specific as you can: where are the changes in landscape taking place, and since when? How long has the impact persisted?
  • If data allows, what are the environmental peculiarities of the areas where the impact is happening?

No matter what the company’s activities are, you may go back to the Logical Model if needed.

Common mistakes:

  • Not treating the main activity of the company or not being comprehensive about its activities

  • Mixing other types of environmental impacts (e.g. water pollution, toxic waste) rather than discussing landscape impacts

  • Lack of quantitative data about the actual impact

  • Only quantifying the companies’ activities and not the impact.

    • E.g. only saying that the company has, for example, 44 wells but not mentioning how much this amount of wells is likely to disturb.

  • Discussing social impacts

Also, ask yourselves the following questions:

1/ The breadth of the impact

  • Is the impact local, national, or global?

  • How many species or people are concerned?

2/ The depth of the impact

  • Is the biodiversity or people concerned deeply affected, or does the issue just marginally impact them?

  • Are the changes brought by the issue profoundly changing society or the planet?

3/ The persistence of the impact

  • How long would the impact described last for? Months? Years? Decades?

  • How reversible is the impact described in the impact analysis? Can it be easily stopped/extended?

Find more about evaluating the scale of the impact in Step 5: Assess scale and value.

Additional Information specific to Extractives & Minerals Processing industries

Oil & Gas - Exploration & Production

The exploration and production (E&P) industry’s activities can have significant impacts on landscapes. Examples include alteration through land use for exploration, production, disposing of drilling and associated wastes, and decommissioning of onshore and offshore wells.

Coal Operations

Surface mining and mountaintop removal can alter the landscape, removing vegetation. Acid mine drainage is particularly significant: it is highly acidic water, rich in heavy metals, formed when surface and shallow subsurface water comes into contact with coal mining overburden and can have harmful effects on plants.

Metals & Mining

The development, operation, closure, and remediation of mines can have a range of impacts on biodiversity, such as alterations of landscape, vegetation removal. Acid rock drainage is a particularly significant risk: it is highly acidic water, rich in heavy metals, formed when surface and shallow subsurface water come into contact with mining overburden.

Construction Materials

Construction materials companies often operate their own quarries close to processing facilities. Quarrying requires the removal of vegetation and topsoil. It also requires the blasting and crushing of underlying stone deposits. The process can lead to permanent alterations of the landscape.


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