Mapping anthropogenic impact

Kilvey Hill, Swansea.

Network of bell pits.

Stillingfleet mine, North Yorkshire

Artificial ground

Human activity contributes to the evolution of the landscape and movement of sediment, through the creation of artificial ground, including archaeological remains.

Artificial ground includes areas where the landscape has been modified through the removal or placement of rock, soil and waste material.

The type of excavation and composition of anthropogenic material reflect its origin and the process that emplaced it.

The composition of the material can be extremely variable both laterally and vertically, representing rapid land-use change in one locality.

Stratigraphically, artificial ground can be interpreted as sedimentary deposits or excavations representing the human geological record during the Anthropocene.

Changing chemistry

Artificial ground that is formed as a result of changing land use through time is commonly contaminated.

Natural sediments also preserve a distinctive chemical signature from anthropogenic activities including smelting of metals and burning fossil fuels.

Sediments recovered in areas like the Mersey Estuary, North West England, show distinct contamination at certain depths below the bed of the estuary. These signatures record the industrial development of the Mersey region as chemicals such as mercury were discharged into the Mersey during the Industrial Revolution.

Spoil from deep and opencast coal mining forms one of the most significant anthropogenic landforms in Great Britain.

Information from Ordnance Survey maps shows spoil heaps covering between 0.5–1 km2 containing millions of tonnes of waste.

Artificial ground comprising furnace slag covers large areas around many British towns and cities.

Pollen records

As humans moved from hunter-gatherer to farming and settlement communities, the modification of the landscape to agricultural areas can be found in seed and pollen remains in sediments.

Seeds and pollen from woodland trees and plants are followed by pollen from crops, providing evidence of the removal of large wooded areas as the land is converted to an agricultural landscape.

Erosion and sediment movement

Increasing agricultural land use exposes the soil to the elements. Wind, water and slope processes lead to soil denudation and this is seen in pulses of sediment being deposited in valley bottoms.

Dam construction inadvertently traps sediment that would otherwise have been transported downstream by rivers into our seas and oceans.

Atmospheric alteration

Widespread industrial activity and urbanisation accelerated during the Industrial Revolution and are associated with the increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) into the atmosphere. This may represent a significant atmospheric marker defining the Anthropocene epoch.


Contact Ms Stephanie Bricker (Urban Geoscience) for further information