Natural Hazards

Anthropogenic changes of the landscape and natural hazards

Anthropogenic changes of the landscape and natural hazards

In this post, I had the pleasure to interview Paolo Tarolli, a very active member of the EGU community and a brilliant scientist. He is Professor in Water Resources Management and Integrated Watershed Management, and head of Earth Surface Processes and Society research group at the Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy). He has a PhD in Environmental Watershed Management and Geomatics and has worked as academic staff at the Università degli Studi di Padova since 2011. He was Visiting Professor at several universities (e.g. China University of Geosciences, Guangzhou University, National Cheng Kung University, EPFL), and Adjunct Professor at University of Georgia and Università Politecnica delle Marche.

Paolo Tarolli is also very active in science dissemination, being Executive Editor of the open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences (NHESS) and Science Officer of the Natural Hazards division (NH6 remote sensing & hazards) at the European Geosciences Union (EGU). He is also a member of the European Geosciences Union, the American Geophysical Union, and the British Society for Geomorphology.

His fields of expertise include digital terrain analysis, earth surface processes analysis, natural hazards, geomorphology, hydro-geomorphology, lidar, structure-from-motion photogrammetry; new research directions include the analysis of topographic signatures of human activities from local to regional scale.

1) Humans are having an increasing impact on the Earth, and the term Anthropocene is now commonly used to define the period we are living in to highlight the strong influence of human beings. How are humans shaping the Earth?


Conceptual diagram of long-term changes in sociocultural systems, cultural inheritances, societal scale, energy use and anthropogenic geomorphic features (source: Tarolli et al. 2019, Progress in Physical Geography, doi:10.1177/0309133318825284)

Human societies have been reshaping the geomorphology of landscapes for thousands of years, producing anthropogenic geomorphic features ranging from earthworks and ditches to settlements, agricultural terraces, ports, roads, canals, airports and constructed wetlands that have distinct characteristics compared with landforms produced by natural processes. Human societies are transforming the geomorphology of landscapes at increasing rates and scales across the globe. These anthropogenic patterns, directly and indirectly, alter Earth surface processes while reflecting the sociocultural conditions of the societies that produced them. In my recent paper published in Progress in Physical Geography[1] (a research collaboration with some colleagues with a different background, e.g. geomorphology, ecology and archaeology), we introduced the concept of “sociocultural fingerprints”. We connected the novel Earth system processes provided by the emergence and evolution of human societies with their continuous shaping and reshaping of Earth’s geomorphology from the deep past into the foreseeable future. We underlined the opportunity to recognize the geomorphic signatures of sociocultural fingerprints across Earth’s land surface using high-resolution remote sensing[2] combined with a theoretical framework that integrates the natural and sociocultural forces that have and will shape the landscapes of the Anthropocene. Doing so, the long-term dynamics of anthropogenic landscapes can be more effectively investigated and understood, towards more sustainable management of the Earth system.

2) Natural hazards are generated by a combination of both natural and human-related factors: what are the main natural hazards affected by the human impacts on the landscape? Further, how can new technologies such as remote sensing support studies in this field?

It is difficult to precisely categorize what are the natural hazards affected exclusively by the human impacts on the landscape since in most cases the result is a combination of both natural and anthropogenic processes. However, we can distinguish some hazards affected more than others by “anthropogenic processes”. Here a few examples:

  • Hazards and mining. Increases in mineral extraction are concomitant with increases in population. Mining can have a significant impact on catchments influencing landscape evolution, sediment transport and deposition. Floods and mud-flow could occur after mining dam collapses with a large amount of sediment deposited along the downslope river network. We can mention a few recent and tragic examples. Ajka alumina mining in western Hungary: the northwestern corner of the dam of the mining reservoir collapsed in October 2010, freeing approximately one million cubic meters of liquid waste. Bento Rodrigues dam disaster (occurred on November 2015 in Brazil): about 60 million cubic meters of iron waste were moved into a river causing several damages and casualties. Brumadinho dam disaster (occurred in January 2019 in Brazil), with 12 million cubic meters of tailings involved and at least 186 people died;
  • Landslides activated along roads network. A large part of the anthropic landscape is affected by a dense road network [2]. A well-designed road network allows fast communications, the efficient performance of every aspect of productive activities and good environmental management. Roads in mountainous/hilly landscapes, for example, support agricultural development, timber harvesting, local travel, trade and tourism. Road networks (that are evident anthropogenic geomorphological features along a hillslope) may change the natural surface flow directions, increasing the soil erosion or landslide risk if their drainage system is not working properly or if the rainfall intensity is very high. The result is the activation of soil erosion and in some situations significant mass movements. For more details on this topic I remind the readers the review article (chap. 3 and 5.1.3) I published in Geomorphology in 2016 [3];
  • Floods and urbanization. Urbanized landscapes are one of the most sensitive systems to hydrological extremes. In such landscapes, flooding represents one of the most dangerous environmental risks, with several impacts on society and the environment (see our recently published work [4]). It is clear that, under a giving climate forcing, an urbanized surface can lead to more runoff respect to a forested one, therefore increase flooding.

The progressive rise of new remote sensing technologies (e.g. laser scanners), and the related availability of high-resolution topographic data is offering the Earth science community great opportunities and challenges to better understand Earth surface processes from their characteristic topographic signatures. Natural hazards related studies, especially those mentioned before, where anthropogenic features are predominant, are benefiting by such detailed topographic information. A comprehensive mapping of human topographic signatures is required if we are to understand, model, and forecast the hazards of the future. For further details, I address the readers to our opinion paper published in Eos [5].

3) On the Internet, we can see your – or your research group – presence in many websites, and social media, including a blog. How important is for early career (or also experienced) researchers to disseminate research results not only through scientific peer-reviewed publications but also, e.g. through social media?

Science communication, especially through social media, is one of the major challenges of this century. The reasons are several. Citizens need to be correctly informed about our scientific advances since they represent our Society. In my point of view, it is mandatory for a scientist to be able to communicate her/his major research advances to the common people. A good scientist doesn’t need to be closed in an “ivory tower” discussing only with colleagues. The second point is that we are living in the “era of fake news” and social media is the principal vector of this. Therefore, we need to massively inform people about the main environmental criticalities of our time, reply in a scientific way to each fake news raised and commented. This is not an easy job; it requires time. However, time spent in such activity would be a great exercise and a good service for Society. Early career scientists, because they represent the future generation, have to take up this challenge and work to improve their skills in communication; a simple Twitter account or a Facebook page (if one wants to have more direct contact with people) is enough.

4) On your pages it is possible to see that you also have a Chinese name, , suggesting you have strong connections with China. Its academic community is growing – both quantitatively and qualitatively – very rapidly: which are the main challenges that you have encountered and the main benefits you got from these cooperation activities?

Yes, I have strong connections with China; I have so many friends there, and I found that society is challenging on multiple aspects of life. The Chinese academic community is growing fast with a rising number of novel scientific advances. China, like many other countries in the world, is facing major problems because of global environmental changes; and more than 1.3 billion people are living there. Therefore, the topics related to hazards, risk mitigation, vulnerability and resilience are becoming more and more important. My relationship with Chinese colleagues is a win-win cooperation: joint research and field activities, staff and student exchanges, and innovative teaching activities at the post-graduate level (e.g. round table discussion on natural hazards, GIS lab analysis on real case studies, digital terrain analysis using high-resolution topography data). In details, we are working on the use of innovative remote sensing technologies for the analysis of human impact on Earth, focusing on mining activities, land use change (urbanization) and flooding, hazards mapping in agricultural landscapes. We published some papers together; in my opinion, one of the most significant was the article[6] published in 2015 on the use of UAV for open-pit mining monitoring.


[1] Tarolli, P., Cao, W., Sofia, G., Evans, D., & Ellis, E. C. (2019). From features to fingerprints: A general diagnostic framework for anthropogenic geomorphology. Progress in Physical Geography, 43(1), 95–128, doi:10.1177/0309133318825284.

[2] Tarolli, P. (2014). High-resolution topography for understanding Earth surface processes: opportunities and challenges. Geomorphology, 216, 295–312, doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2014.03.008.

[3] Tarolli, P., Sofia G. (2016). Human topographic signatures and derived geomorphic processes across landscapes. Geomorphology, 255, 140–161, doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2015.12.007.

[4] Sofia, G., Roder, G., Dalla Fontana, G., Tarolli, P. (2017). Flood dynamics in urbanised landscapes: 100 years of climate and humans’ interaction. Scientific Reports, 7, 40527, doi:10.1038/srep40527.

[5] Tarolli, P., Sofia, G., Ellis, E. (2017), Mapping the topographic fingerprints of humanity across Earth. Eos, 98, 13–15, doi:/10.1029/2017EO069637.

[6] Chen, J., Li, K., Chang, K.-J., Sofia, G., Tarolli, P. (2015). Open-pit mining geomorphic feature characterization. International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, 42, 76–86, doi:10.1016/j.jag.2015.05.001.




I have a bachelor in GIS and Remote Sensing and a master and a PhD in Environmental Sciences. Since several years, I work in the field of Climate Change and Risk assessment. I worked with the University of Venice and the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change, while travelling across the world, from China to Ecuador. For three years, I have been working in Norway, first as postdoc at the University of Oslo, and now as researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research. My research focus is now mainly on climate change and forestry. I think that one of the most positive aspect of being a researcher is meet and cooperate with many people; therefore, I strongly believe networking initiatives are particularly useful. I am one of the founder of NhET and I think the Blog will be a great channel to engage more ECS - and more experienced researcher as well - working on Natural Hazard.

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