The need for new, transformative research about the future of Earth’s surface in light of increasing human interactions is urgent and lies at the center of recent national reports. The 2009 GEOVision
report of the National Science Foundation (NSF) recognized that humans are no longer a negligible influence on Earth’s system, and in fact, have emerged as the dominant agent of change at Earth’s surface. In Landscapes on the Edge: New Horizons for Research on Earth’s Surface
(2010), the National Research Council (NRC) identified a Grand Challenge in: “How will Earth’s surface evolve in the “Anthropocene”? — suggesting a need to account explicitly for human-process interactions in understanding and predicting change on Earth’s surface in the new era. The challenge calls for development of new theories and predictive capacity for human-landscape systems, requiring new conceptual frameworks, methods, and team-based collaborations linking across the geosciences, biological sciences, social sciences, and engineering. Such interdisciplinary studies of Earth’s surface processes were also a primary recommendation in NRC’s 2011 report, New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences,
including development of models of the active role of humans in landscape change.
This paper summarizes recent efforts directed toward meeting the grand challenge identified for Earth’s changing surface in the “Anthropocene.” A 2010 interdisciplinary workshop, sponsored by NSF, focused on developing key questions and integrative themes for advancing understanding of human-landscape systems. Key questions identified from a range of disciplinary perspectives produced four integrative research themes — thresholds/tipping points, time scales and time lags, spatial scales and boundaries, feedback loops — serving as potential focal points around which theory can be built for human-landscape systems. A conceptual framework initiated at the workshop further links impacts and feedbacks, as well as past legacies of human activities with present processes. This framework is illustrated with examples from several Earth surface environments.