How much land on Earth is inhabited?

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How much of the land on Earth is covered by humans? (Asked by Lynne)


Approximately 10%.

This question is an interesting one because, when my friend asked me the other day, I could tell her confidently that not only did science know the answer, science had multiple different ways to quantify that answer, but that I had absolutely no idea what it was.

Landcover is one key way that we can measure how much of the terrestrial environment has been covered by humans. Earth’s surface is about 500 million km2, but most of that (70.8%) is water, which we’re not really very good at. So ignoring oil rigs and the occasional cruise liner, we’re only talking about a total possible land surface to cover of roughly 149 million km2.

The thing is, landcover is something that is changing (and our technology to estimate it is improving) constantly, so even fairly recent estimates may already be out of date. A meta-analysis in 2011, which included 326 studies of urban landcover using remote sensing technology such as satellite images, found that urban landcover increased by nearly 60,000 km2 between 1970 and 2000.

In the year 2000, estimates suggest that globally, urban land covered somewhere between 700,000 and 3.5 million km2 – but that’s a pretty big margin of error. The meta-analysis found that the largest rates of increase in urban landcover were seen in India, China and Africa, while North America experienced the largest total change since 1970. In all regions, urban land expanded either faster or equivalent to population growth rates, suggesting our societies are also becoming more expansive.

Using data from 1970 to 2000, the researchers then tried to project future urban land cover change – their results predict that global urban landcover will increase by a further 1.5 million km2 by 2030. Over half-way to this prediction, where are we now?


According to the FAO Global Land Cover SHARE database, produced in 2014, 0.6% of Earth’s land surface is defined as ‘Artificial surfaces‘. Artificial surfaces include any areas that have an artificial cover as a result of human activities such as construction (cities, towns, transportation), extraction (open mines and quarries) or waste disposal. This figure gives us an estimate of roughly 900,000 km2 of human-covered land worldwide. This suggests the lower end of the estimates made in 2000 were probably more accurate, and that we’ve still got a long way to go before we hit Seto and colleague’s projections!

However, even non-urban areas contain roads, train tracks, farms and other marks of human domination. The FAO GLC SHARE data shows that 12.6% of land is categorised as cropland. If we include this to our estimate of global human cover – we get a rather more sobering estimate of 19 million km2. In 2009, the European Commission’s Joint Research Center published a map in the World Bank’s World Development report, showing that 95% of the world’s population is concentrated in just 10% of the land surface. However, only 10% of land on Earth was considered ‘remote’ – more than 48 hours from a large city.

So on the one hand, you could say from these results that 10% of Earth is inhabited by humans. Or you could take a more glass half-empty view and say that 90% of Earth is covered by humans – either populated or connected with an ever-expanding network of roads, train tracks, highways, farms and industrial land. Only 10% of the world is truly wilderness.

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Featured image from MODIS is in the Public Domain.

23 comments on “How much land on Earth is inhabited?

  1. We should convert sea water into sweat water and we should make canals for providing water in all deserts of the world and that area where rocky barren land where we put arable sand in this way our earth can support 40 billion people

    • While your plan will apparently support 40 billion people, why would we want this? To create passages from water ways to deserts we’d be destroying natural habitats of species living in the desert and disturbing those of species who live in the water, effecting their migration and food sources and further deteriorating their population. Also causing more pollution to aquatic habitats. 40 billion people would also raise the CO2 emission greatly causing inccreased climate change, which is the cause of stronger hurricanes, animal and plant population decrease and poor air quality for everyone, shortening the life span of humans. There were 7.442 billion people accounted for in 2016 and we are facing huge environmental and economical issues, why would you want more people to inhabit the earth?

    • Sea, Fertile Land, Desert, Hills and High mountains are essential part of nature’s echo system and nature’s cycle of seasons. To move air from one place to other it is must that one area is hot and one area is cold at same time. Hot air goes up and leaves the vacuum under it, which is filled by cold air again. Heat and air travel process causes rain. Hills & mountains help the wet air to rise up in order to increase density of clouds, which ultimately rains.

  2. The correct figure for the percentage of the earth’s land mass which is actually occupied by humans is .03%. This includes the land occupied by cities, towns, and commercial enterprises. So this means that out of 1000 units of land, we occupy three. The zealots included land which is being farmed and forested, but this land is not subject to any kind of contamination. So, like it or not, we humans are insignificant in the real workings of the earth, but we are an egocentric species, who overstate our importance.

  3. In The Salt of the Earth (2014 a photographer Sebastiao Salgado suggested that half of the world is inhabited. The director was Wim Wenders and the son of Sebastiao Salgado. I kept in my mind this. Now when I needed this information I started searching and encountered this article. Which to trust? I’m not sure.

  4. The entire population of the earth can stand on Manhattan Island with room to spare.

    No matter how you measure it, humans are a SMALL percentage of what goes on on earth. Other creatures and plants have a much greater effect on what happens. Oceans and their influence on earth have a much greater impact – try to stop or create a hurricane, typhoon, cyclone, monsoon, etc. Volcanos probably have a greater impact despite the infrequency of catastrophic eruptions – they shut down travel and pollute the ocean and harm humans. Earthquakes can cause tsunamis which can kill hundreds of thousands of people, injuring countless others and destroy decades of human development in a matter of minutes.

    We simply do NOT know the answers to even apparently “simple” questions that “can” (might) be answered by “science.”

    • I don’t think the Manhattan fact is true. 7 billion folks would take up about 14 billion square feet, which I think is about 500 square miles. So we could all stand on Rhodes or Mauritius, but not Manhattan (which is less than 13 square miles). Still, you are right about our small impact. We contribute only about 0.3% of the atmospheric CO2, so if we stopped everything tomorrow, it would barely register.

  5. i would like to know total land area usable in which how much human worldwide cover the area and how much is balance to be utalize hope my query is clear

  6. All you have to do to get a correct answer to this dispute is to look out the window on a flight from east to west coast of North America. You can fly for a long time and hardly see a sign of human existance along many parts of the continent.

    Humans have disturbed a very small portion of the earths surface. I would agree that croplands count as disturbed, as do clear-cut forests It’s still a very small %.

  7. “90% of Earth is covered by humans”! Seriously? 70% of the Earth is covered with water so how are humans covering 90% of the Earth? Liberals! You people are so loony. Most of you wouldn’t know true science if it was sitting next to you.

    • Hi Alex,

      If you’d taken the time to read the whole article you’d see that in that particular sentence I was referring to the amount of available land that was in some way impacted by humans. I acknowledge in the first paragraph of the article that “Earth’s surface is about 500 million km2, but most of that (70.8%) is water”, however I felt it was interesting to explore different measures of how much of the planet our activities cover. As I said in my article,

      “In 2009, the European Commission’s Joint Research Center published a map in the World Bank’s World Development report, showing that 95% of the world’s population is concentrated in just 10% of the land surface. However, only 10% of land on Earth was considered ‘remote’ – more than 48 hours from a large city.”

      So in that sense, 90% of the land on Earth is being regularly accessed and therefore impacted by humans.

      It’s unfortunate that you chose to pick out just one sentence from my article and ignore the science that was sitting next to you.

      • It’s unfortunate that you don’t understand the discrepancy. Jumping from the 10% to a nonsensical conclusion of 90% of perceived true wilderness, simply because of the “remote” remark, is just wrong. It is very telling that you would leave the reader with that as an actual conclusion, which essentially defeats any of the numbers you provided prior to your “glass-half-empty”conclusion. This even defeats the 70% of water since you clearly only typed “90% of earth”opposed to “90% of land” in your article (both of which would be wrong). Further, it is just silly to assume that if I as a human would use a steady route through an otherwise “untouched” area I would “impact” said area deeming it to be a part of your 90%, and in the same breath believe that the area would be magically immune from any other “impact” by any other life-form that would be living within it or any other occurrence that would affect it, such as a volcano or earthquake. I say that because this would have to be a consideration in your “conclusion”. Besides, do you not realise that we humans are as much natural and a part of earth as anything else on it? There are also other discrepancies within your article, so I’m not sure if you just copy&pasted some of the bits (which would be fine generally) without truly thinking about them. Nevertheless, thanks for some of the info.

        • I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the article. Ultimately there is no one right answer to this question since there are many ways to interpret it – I tried to present a number of different ways of looking at the same question and provide some kind of answer to each. Ultimately, my conclusion is that there is very little of the Earth (whether you read that as the planet’s surface, the land or the sea) that has not been impacted in some way by humans. Of course the planet has also been impacted by other living organisms (although I’d argue few if any to the same extent or degree) and by natural forces such as volcanism and tectonics.

          I find it very insulting that you would suggest I merely copied and pasted text from elsewhere – I would never plagiarise someone else’s work on my blog, this is a very serious allegation and simply not true.

  8. I live in Indiana and I’d estimate 25% of the land is inhabited, 40% is farmed. Leaving 35% untouched and uninhabited by humans. As you go West- those percentage probably go up quite a bit- Nebraska, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Idaho etc. I would agree that the percentage of 10% is untouched by humans/uninhabited is extremely low. I would venture to say world wide when you look at Canada, South America, China/Russia, Australia, etc- the percentage is probably closer to 60+% uninhabited by humans. Maybe some humans have trekked through various parts but they are not living there.

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