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Mapped: The Anatomy of Land Use in America

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United States Land Use

Mapped: The Anatomy of Land Use in America

The United States is not just an economic and political giant on the global stage—the country also has one of the largest land masses at its disposal.

Altogether, the country spans 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million km²)—making it the third largest country in the world. Even without factoring Alaska and Hawaii into the calculations, the contiguous U.S. land mass can fit up to 30 European countries within it.

With this much ground to work with, it raises the natural question of how land actually gets used by America’s economy. For example, what percentage of land is taken up by urban areas, and how much farmland and forests exist in comparison?

Today’s maps from the McHarg Center put America’s wide variety of land uses into perspective.

The Components of U.S. Land Use

As the U.S. prepares to add 100 million more people this century, the “2100 Project: An Atlas for the Green New Deal” provides a snapshot of U.S. land use (as of 2017), aimed at managing resources to support this future.

According to this data, here is a snapshot of land use in the Lower 48 States:

Land typeLand use (%)Land area
Forests27%842,400 mi²
Shrubland24%748,800 mi²
Agriculture17%530,400 mi²
Grasslands and Pasture17%530,400 mi²
Wetlands5%156,000 mi²
Other5%156,000 mi²
Open Space3%93,600 mi²
Urban Areas2%63,400 mi²
Total100%3,120,000 mi²

Let’s dive into the specifics of three types of land: urban areas, forests, and agriculture.

Editor’s note: click on any map below to see a large, high-resolution version, which will open in a new window.

Small But Mighty: U.S. Urban Areas

It’s clear that even a little space goes a long way. Although urban areas take up only 2% of land, an overwhelming majority of Americans call cities their home. As of 2018, urbanites made up over 82% of the U.S. population.

Where people go, productivity often follows. In 2018, it’s estimated that 31 county economies made up a whopping 32% of national GDP. Most of these counties were located in and around major cities, such as Los Angeles or New York.

urban-areas-820px

Although urban areas are a small part of the overall land they’re built on, they’re integral to the nation’s continued growth. According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, it’s estimated that by 2030, 60% of job growth could come from just 25 hubs.

Seeing Green: America’s Vast Forests

On the flipside, forests account for over a quarter of land in the U.S., divided almost evenly between deciduous and evergreen trees. Many protected national and state parks can also be found in and around forests.

forests-parks-wetlands-820px

On the mainland, California and Oregon are the states with the most forested land—unfortunately, they have also been plagued by wildfires in recent, dry summer months.

Wetlands are also included in the map above, particularly around the southern tip of Florida, where Everglades National Park is located. Over the years, many wetlands were drained to make way for agriculture, particularly in the Great Lakes megaregion. As a result, it’s estimated that their area today is only half of what they once used to be.

Home Grown: Agriculture in the U.S.

Last but not least, the final set of maps show where America grows its food. Agricultural, food, and related industries contributed $1.05 trillion (5.4%) to U.S. GDP in 2017.

agriculture-grassland-820px

Wheat, corn, and soybeans are the major crops grown in the U.S.—and cotton also makes the cut as a profitable non-food crop. Much of these crops feed not only Americans, but other parts of the world too. Soybeans, corn, and wheat are exported across the Pacific mainly to China and Japan.

crop-types-820px

Corn, in particular, is a unique crop with a myriad of uses, from food to fuels. Up to 40% of U.S. corn is turned into livestock feed, with cows consuming over half (56%) of this amount.

At present, the U.S. is the world’s largest beef producer, followed by Brazil. In fact, beef production takes up 40% of total livestock-related land use domestically.

meat-production-820px

Although fewer American consumers are opting for meat in their diets, production has remained at high rates. Further, as incomes continues to increase worldwide, the global appetite for meat is set to rise along with it.

Future Land Use

The U.S. population is set to grow by 100 million more people over the coming decades, raising the pressure on limited U.S. land and natural resources. This pressure will be felt everywhere, from dense urban land to agricultural farmland.

How the land gets utilized will shape the country’s future for years to come.

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Agriculture

Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years

The Western U.S. is no stranger to droughts. But this year’s is one of the worst yet. Here’s a historical look at U.S. droughts since 1999.

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us drought 2021

Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years

The Western U.S. is experiencing one of the worst recorded droughts in the last 20 years.

Temperatures from California to the Dakotas are currently hovering around 9-12°F above average—but how bad is the situation compared to past years?

This animated map by reddit user /NothingAbnormalHere provides a historical look at droughts in the U.S. since 1999, using data and graphics from the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM).

What is the U.S. Drought Monitor?

Over the last two decades, the USDM has been tracking, measuring, and comparing droughts across America.

While droughts can be difficult to classify and standardize, there are various factors that can be used to gauge when a region is experiencing drought. These include measurements of snowpack levels, soil moisture, and recent precipitation.

To track these conditions (and make sense of them), the USDM synthesizes data from a plethora of meteorological sources, including the Palmer Drought Severity Index and the Standardized Precipitation Index.

From there, conditions are broken down into categories, ranging from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (Exceptional Drought). A map is released each week that shows which states are experiencing drought, and to what degree.

Where Are The Most Drought-Prone Areas?

According to a map created by climatologist Becky Bolinger (which is published on Drought.gov), Arizona and Nevada are the most historically drought-prone states—the two have experienced drought more than 50% of the time tracked by the USDM.

Most Drought-Prone States

California is high on the list as well, with the state experiencing drought at least 40% of the time.

As the historical data shows, the West is no stranger to droughts. However, this year’s drought has become particularly worrisome because of its intensity and breadth.

Right now, more than a quarter of the West is experiencing a D4 level drought—a new record. To help put things into perspective, here’s a look at how much overall land area in the West has been in drought, since 2000:

West Percent Area in U.S. Drought

When a region is experiencing a D4 drought, possible impacts include:

  • Water Scarcity
    Lower reservoirs, combined with decreased snowpack lead to water shortages.
  • Crop losses
    Water shortages mean less water for fields, which can lead to acres of fallow (unused) farmland.
  • Wildfires
    Dry conditions and lack of moisture increase the risk of wildfires.

Is This the New Norm?

This record-breaking drought is wreaking havoc across the West. In California, reservoirs have about half as much water as they usually do, and crop failures are happening across Colorado.

The worst part? Some experts believe that this could be the new normal if human-driven climate change continues to increase average temperatures across the globe.

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Agriculture

The Uses of Corn: Industries Affected by High Corn Prices

Corn has many uses that make modern life possible. This infographic breaks down U.S. corn usage in 2020.

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uses of corn

Corn Beyond the Cob

Corn or maize is the second most-produced crop in the world, and it’s more than just a staple in our diets.

From the sweetener in our coffees to the ethanol that powers our vehicles, corn has hundreds of uses. Consequently, high corn prices have a domino effect that can affect many supply chains and possibly even increase the cost of our weekly groceries, especially if they include tortilla chips.

This infographic uses data from the National Corn Growers Association to break down U.S. corn use by segment in 2020, and the products that a bushel of corn can produce.

The Uses of Corn in the U.S.

While corn on the cob is quite popular, not all corn is sweet. There are five major types of corn grown around the world, and each one differs in taste and uses. Of these, yellow dent corn or field corn accounts for the majority of commercial U.S. production.

Here’s a breakdown of U.S. corn usage in 2020:

SegmentBushels Used (millions)% of Usage (2020)
Feed5,65038.7%
Ethanol (Fuel)3,87526.6%
Exports2,55017.5%
Ethanol (Animal Feed)1,0757.4%
Sweeteners7805.3%
Starch2301.6%
Cereal/Other2151.5%
Beverages/Alcohol1701.2%
Seeds300.2%
Total14,575100%

Corn accounts for more than 96% of U.S. feed grain use and production. As a result, animal feed makes up nearly 40% of the country’s corn usage. This is because corn is a rich source of carbohydrates, and in combination with protein from soybeans, it can make for an effective diet for livestock.

In the United States, federal mandates require vehicles to use a blend of gasoline and biofuels like ethanol—94% of which is produced from the starch in corn grain. Therefore, a large portion of U.S. corn goes into ethanol production.

Interestingly, the ethanol distillation process produces a co-product known as dried distillers grain, which serves as low-cost, protein-rich animal feed for livestock. On average, the U.S. ethanol industry produces around 90,000 tons of distillers grains each week.

Animal feed and ethanol production collectively make up around 73% of U.S. corn usage. Other uses of corn include the production of sweeteners, starch, cereal, and alcoholic beverages like whiskey.

Breaking Down U.S. Corn Exports

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer and exporter of corn and accounted for roughly 36% of exports in 2020.

Up until 2019, the majority of U.S. corn exports went to Mexico, Japan, and Colombia. China wasn’t among the top 10 destinations, but this changed in 2020.

u.s. corn exports

Between January 2020 and 2021, U.S. corn exports to China increased exponentially, reaching an all-time high in December. China’s massive import appetite is because of a shortage of domestic supplies amid rising demand for feed from its recovering hog-herd, which was hit by the African swine fever in 2018.

Consequently, China became the third-largest importer of U.S. corn in 2020 after Mexico and Brazil. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that China’s corn imports in 2021 will be much higher than 2020 levels, and the majority of those will be sourced from the United States.

The Corn Price Boom

In addition to a drought-induced yield cut in Brazil, rising demand from China has driven corn prices to their highest level in the last eight years.

price of corn

Since the beginning of 2020, corn prices have increased 68% and stand at around $6.50 per bushel as of May 19th.

The rise in corn prices is likely to affect several industries and could translate into higher prices for our groceries, including cereals, taco shells, and corn syrups. Additionally, it could also push up the price of gas due to its key role in ethanol production.

Corn, in a Bushel

In a world where commodities like corn are often taken for granted, it’s important to think about how valuable it can be.

A single bushel of corn can provide 33 lbs of sweetener, 31.5 lbs of starch, or 22.4 lbs of polymers. It’s also enough to produce around 3 gallons of ethanol fuel and 16 lbs of distillers dried grains for animal feed.

The uses of corn go far beyond the cob, and just like other raw materials, it supports many industries that make modern life possible.

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