The MedAction Internet Tool for Forecasting Land-use Change and Land Degradation

Paper presented at the
6th International Conference on GeoComputation
University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
24-26 September 2001

Richard Kingston & Andy Turner

Centre for Computational Geography
University of Leeds, UK

This paper is also available as a word document.


MedAction is a European Commission funded 5th Framework Program research project that aims to address the main issues underlying the causes, effects and mitigation options for managing land degradation and desertification in the Northern Mediterranean region of Europe. Module 3 of MedAction deals with Decision Support Systems in which Work Package 3.3 is concerned with the development of an Internet tool to allow planners, decision-makers and the world-wide public access to modelling systems for forecasting land-use change and land degradation risk. The main objectives of this research are:

A prototype is due on-line in June 2002 and should provide a stable interface for the viewing of available geographical data, meta-data and model results. The interface and modelling system will be developed in various ways over the duration of the MedAction project (until December 2003) to enable users to enter environmental change scenarios and view the potential effects on land-use and land degradation. The modelling system will integrate predictions of the climate, physical and socio-economic environment to create scenario-based forecasts of agricultural land-use and land degradation for the entire Mediterranean climate region of the European Union. The models will operate at a 1-decimal-minute resolution, though the outputs maybe best aggregated and displayed at a range of spatial scales.

This research builds on earlier work that involved developing a means of linking physical, climatic and socio-economic data in order to make predictions of land-use change and land degradation for around 50 years hence; see Medalus III (1999) Topic 9.1, and Openshaw and Turner (1999).

1. Introduction

This paper reports on the early development of some research work that forms part of the European Commission (EC) 5th framework research program - Key Action 2: on energy, the environment and sustainable development. The work is part of a project called MedAction, which is geared to looking at policies for combating desertification and to investigate the main issues underlying the causes, effects and mitigation options for managing land degradation and desertification in the Mediterranean region of the European Union (EU). The MedAction research team involves a large number of research scientists working on a number of complimentary work packages grouped as four modules as can be seen in Figure 1. The authors are specifically working on Work Package 3.3 (MWP3.3) to develop an Internet tool for forecasting land-use change and land degradation in the Mediterranean region.

Figure 1 Interconnections between MedAction Modules and Work Packages

There is a growing likelihood that global climatic change in response to global warming will soon start to have visible and increasingly fundamental environmental (physical and socio-economic) impacts in the 21st century across many parts of the world. In some regions the effects may well be unnoticed or are irrelevant as they are well within the capacity of existing ecosystems to cope; however, in other regions including Mediterranean climate zones the environment is thought to be far more fragile. In Mediterranean Europe (and North Africa) it has been suggested that even quite small changes in climate in the direction of a longer summer drought, higher temperatures and more intense storms is happening and that this maybe sufficient to cause a major detrimental impact on the environmental and socio-economic systems that relate to it. The ongoing research challenge is to identify and test ways of predicting climatic change impacts on agricultural land-use as a basis for raising awareness and creating a framework for action. The hardness of this challenge should not be underestimated but equally there is an increasing urgency to know something of what may be happening to our world in the medium term future so that thinking and strategic planning may be proactive rather than purely reactive.

Desertification and land degradation in the Mediterranean region is having a direct impact upon land-use, land capability, and land suitability for particular uses. Also, land-use feeds back and can have a direct impact on land degradation. If the wrong crops are planted, or overgrazing is allowed, or irrigation is done unwisely (so as to salinise soil); if pesticides or herbicides and other agro-chemicals and other non-agro waste contaminates land and water; if soil is over compacted or left bare, then the quality of the land in terms of its potential productivity and its biological mass and diversity and ability to physically sustain our needs can decline. Such decline has grave positive feedback effects. In short, land-use and socio-economic activity both effects and is affected by the quality of the environment to support both nature (ecosystems) and developments needs.

Land degradation can be thought of as being largely a societal problem in the EU and that it can be combated by the appropriation of land-use (especially agricultural) subsidies and grants for major works. Yet it is conceivable that a lack of coordinated action across the Mediterranean region and even within the EU has led to a patchwork of policy actions, which may not be good enough to alleviate or reduce the problem satisfactorily in the 21st Century. Arguably, the debate on land degradation and how to mitigate it needs to be open to all. Hands up all those who think land degradation is a problem in their region? What are the main causes? Where is it more of a problem? Who is affected? What can and what should be done about it?

2. Aims and objectives

The aims and objectives of MEDALUS III are still applicable. These were to:

The specific aims and objectives of MedAction Work Package 3.3 (MWP3.3) are to:

MWP3.3 has begun to develop an Internet interface to an existing stand-alone modelling system that was initially developed in Topic 9.1 (MT9.1); see Openshaw and Turner (1999) and MEDALUS III (1999). The system currently is being developed to allow users to select which variables to include in the model, enable them to try out different types of modelling methods, and enable them to search for and evaluate, and potentially to integrate available data into the various modelling tasks.

3. The Modelling Challenge

In MT9.1 a means to estimate the likely impacts of climate change on agricultural land-use and land degradation in the Mediterranean climate region of the EU was developed in order to:

The development was termed a Synoptic Prediction System (SPS). It predicted contemporary agricultural land-use based on a range of climatic, physical and socio-economic indicators. It contained models for forecasting environmental variables for future dates, and models to translate environmental change data into land degradation risk indicators.

The modelling work involved in generating land degradation risk indicators is summarised in the following six steps:

A 1-decimal-minute resolution fixed origin grid aligned in terms of latitude and longitude covering the entire Mediterranean climate region of the EU was chosen as an appropriate spatial framework for the analysis. This choice was arbitrary and somewhat irrelevant here, except the fact that it offered a reasonable compromise. Most environmental data could be manipulated into the frame in a relatively straight forward manner using GIS operations. However, the creation of socio-economic data surfaces was much more difficult as it generally required interpolation from much coarser spatial scales. Additionally, most socio-economic data related to historically unstable irregularly shaped zones, whereas physical environmental and climatic models tended to use and produce data in regular girded structures albeit at a range of different scales. Turner and Openshaw (2001) details the process of disaggregating data in this way. The creation of a 1-decimal-minute resolution modelling database is detailed in Openshaw and Turner (1999), and Turner (1999).

In summary the modelling challenge addressed in MT9.1 involved building a SPS. The key objective of MT9.1 was to integrate socio-economics into the land degradation models being developed in the rest of MEDALUS III. The initial designing and development of the SPS was challenging because many of the theoretically desirable data sets were either not available or did not exist. There were also significant uncertainties in all the available data and a lack of meta-data that detailed their quality. Integrating socio-economics was hard because existing physical models of land degradation tended to operate at much more detailed spatial and temporal scales compared with the scale at which socio-economic data were available. Additionally, system process knowledge was woefully deficient as virtually all the principal mechanisms for linking the complex dynamics of the physical environment and climate with the associated socio-economic systems was poorly understood.

If you asked the question: "What is the likely effect of climatic change on the hydrology of a specific river catchment or on the speed of erosion of a particular hill slope?" - then methods exist that can fairly accurately predict the answer. However, if you asked the question: "What is the likely impact of EU agricultural subsidies on the crops growing in the fields on this hill slope or on the agricultural land-use of this catchment?" - then there are still no decent existing models for the current situation let alone models that can forecast the effects in the medium to long term.

In order to try and make objective forecasts, cope with the deficiencies in the available data, and manage without good process knowledge, it can be argued that novel computer modelling methodologies have to be devised. In MT9.1 the SPS approached the task by using GIS, Neural Networks (NN) and Fuzzy Logic (FL) technology. These technologies had many advantages, not least was the ability of NN and FL to cope well with complex, vague and noisy data. The three main stages in the development of the SPS were:

  1. Devising a model to predict contemporary agricultural land-use using; climate variables (temperature and rainfall), physical environmental variables (relating to soil, biomass, elevation etc.), and socio-economic variables (such as, population density);
  2. Forecasting future land-use under a given climatic change scenario; and,
  3. Translating the predicted land-use changes into surfaces depicting land degradation risk.

MEDALUS III (1999) Topic 9.1, and Openshaw and Turner (2001) details the generation of synoptic land degradation forecasts in this way.

Outputs from the SPS developed in MT9.1 were maps that reflected the data, especially the long term climate change scenario (weather forecast) that was employed. Figure 2 illustrates an example, which is a land degradation risk forecast.

Figure 2 Land degradation risk forecast

4. Building a web interface

The main aim of MWP3.3 is to develop a web-based interface to the SPS outlined above. Related to this, a further goal is to increase public participation and raise awareness of sensitivities of land-use change, land degradation, and the outputs of this kind of research and modelling work. The current design of the interface includes:

  1. An initial login page where new users are asked for details about themselves.
  2. An interactive diagram of the system.
  3. A means for users to view:
  4. A means for users to:
  5. Some ways of developing consensus based on user profiles.
  6. Some way of collecting feedback from users about the system and the associated data.
A provisional data viewer is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 MedAction Data Viewer

The next stage of work involves building the modelling interface.

Figure 4 sets out a flow diagram that a typical user of the on-line modelling system is expected to go through. New users are expected to view the data in the data library to develop an understanding of the range of available datasets. Users are then expected to go through a series of web pages explaining the modelling system and how it operates. Next they are expected to interactively select variables to include in their model and incorporate their subjective opinions into the modelling process. Users will be allowed to choose and try out the different types of classifier and modelling methods. They are expected to view and comment on the results. Last but by no means least they are expected to repeat the process using different data selections and model choices.

Figure 4 MedAction web interface flow chart

In summary MWP3.3 is developing an Internet based SPS designed to estimate and educate about predicted effects of changes in land-use, climate and other related environmental factors on land degradation risk (particularly the extreme of desertification) in the Mediterranean climate region of the EU. The system outlined in the conceptual model in Figure 4 above, will provide a generic means for inputting, viewing and analysing relationships in environmental change data over the Internet. The system will be geared to encourage land-use planners and the public to become more involved in the process of monitoring, interpreting and mitigating environmental change impacts in the region. The interface will collect information about the users, their use of the system, and opinions they offer about the problem and mitigation actions. User feedback about the prototype due to come on-line in June 2002 will be taken into account in developing the final version of the system that is due to be delivered at the very end of the project in December 2003.

5. Note on the Evolution of Web enabled GIS

The development of web-based GIS has only occurred over the last 5 years or so. Before 1999 this type of research development was very limited. None of the main proprietary GIS software vendors had developed any web-based GIS products despite the fact that it had long been recognised that the Internet provides a useful way to engage the public in a range of spatial environmental problems and issues (Carver et al 2001).

Over recent years, the Centre for Computational Geography (CCG) have been heavily involved in the development of an open source Java based web mapping toolkit, GeoTools which is a library that facilitates the displaying and manipulating of geographical data over the Internet. GeoTools is a flexible library of routines and objects that is being used to build interactive web-based applets, as well as stand alone applications. The GeoTools home page ( provides access to the source code, tutorials and example applications.

6. Conclusions

This work is still in its early stages but over the next 2-3 years it is hoped that an Internet based SPS will develop into a useful tool for: policy makers; academic, government and environmental research organisations; and, the public with an interest in potential environmental change effects on land degradation risks. Over the next year or so the system will be updated with new socio-economic, environmental and physical data. The web-based interface will undergo continuous development and usability testing. By June 2002 it is planned that significant progress will have been made towards the provision of an on-line version of the modelling system. By the end of 2003 it is hoped that users will have a facility to add their own data, make comments and provide as much feedback as they want about the system and the associated data.

The modelling interface still has to be developed but the prototype is due in June 2002. It is hoped that the development of the Internet based SPS will lead to a more open and widespread debate about land degradation risk in general, and especially that in the Mediterranean climate region of the EU.

This paper has reported on the first steps towards providing wider access to land degradation data and models - systems which in the past have only been available to policy makers and academics. One of the greatest benefits of the Internet is that it has the potential to open up decision making processes to those who are interested in such issues. In this case the aim is to provide an example web-based tool for planners, decision makers and citizens interested in visualising the consequences of environmental change. Hopefully it will lead to more open and transparent environmental planning and political decision making.


We are indebted to the European Commission for funding this work under the following contracts: ENVA4-CT95-0121; and, EVK2-CT-2000-00085.


Carver, S., Evans, A., Kingston, R and Turton, I. (2001) Public Participation, GIS and cyberdemocracy: evaluating on-line spatial decision support systems. Environment and Planning B, Vol. 28.

MEDALUS III (1999) Mediterranean desertification and land-use. Final Report submitted to the European Commission.

Openshaw, S. and Turner, A. (2001) Forecasting global climate change impacts on Mediterranean agricultural land-use in the 21st Century. In Stillwell and Scholten (eds.) Land-use Simulation for Europe. Netherlands: Kluwer.

Openshaw, S. and Turner, A. (1999) Medalus III: Project 3: Module 9: Topic 9.1: GIS based socio-economic modelling. On-line at:

Turner, A. and Openshaw, S. (2001) Dissagregative Spatial Interpolation. Paper presented at GISRUK, University of Wales, April.

Web links

GeoTools open source Java GIS toolkit:

MedAction Project Page:

MedAction Work Package 3.3: