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The Role of Modern Human Land use on Geomorphology

Joe T. Elkins, Ph.D., University of Northern Colorado.
University of Northern Colorado, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
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This activity is a computer-based lab using Google Maps and portions Ken Burn's Documentary 'The West' in a 400-level geomorphology course. Its purpose is to consider the role that modern human land use has on landscape by obscuring geomorphic processes. Modern land use began in the western U.S. during the 1860's when legislation was enacted to encourage 'settlement'. Significant legislation included the Homestake Act and the Dawes Act which transferred land from Native American Tribes to private ownership of U.S. citizens.

This lab is assigned at the end of the course. The lab scaffolds off previous labs where students work with geospatial data such as topo maps and satellite images and evaluate the dominate geomorphic processes at work in public lands- primarily National Parks. This lab contrasts urban and agriculture practices to natural areas in western landscapes.

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Learning Goals

Concepts students should learn from this activity are:
1.) the impact of modern urban development and agriculture on the topography of landscape
2.) the relative low impact activities that occur in natural areas and on tribal lands

Students develop higher order skills through comparative and descriptive analysis of landscapes within several geomorphic provinces. Writing skills are further developed by comparing the changes in these environments in writing.

Context for Use

This is a lab for a 400-level geomorphology class. My course typically has 24 students, with lecture and 'lab'. The assignment comes at the end of the course so that other course material can be scaffold upon (identification of key features in North American geomorphic provinces and dominant geomorphic agents at work in a natural landscape, for example). Students should have some familiarity with navigating Google Maps and using web browsers.

Provided that students' spatial skills are adequate, this is a moderately simple activity is focused on developing observational skills and reporting them in writing.

Description and Teaching Materials

The lab should be distributed to students and they should be given a week to complete this as a 'take-home' assignment. Each video is about an hour long and completion of the lab will take 2-3 hours. Students are also given maps of federal land and tribal lands. Consideration of how many acres where transferred from tribal control to private control and subsequent development should be an 'ah ha!' moment for students.

The Effect of Historical Legislation on Human Land Use and its impact on Geomorphology (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 58kB Nov22 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students unfamiliar with web-based geospatial data navigation can have a harder time navigating the space. Warm-up and practice labs should proceed this lab for students that have limited experience with maps and satellite images. Some students' biases about the 'righteousness' of modern human land use can be an impediment to describing non-natural land development in descriptive observational terms that cast that development in a negative light.


Students should be able to articulate that modern human land use is at a landscape scale and is capable of obscuring natural landforms. The should be able to communicate that modern human land use, in many cases, makes it difficult to evaluate the dominant geomorphic process at work in areas that have been intensely developed.

References and Resources

1.) Google Maps
2.) Ken Burn's The West Episode 3
3.) Ken Burn's The West Episode 8
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