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Land-use changes in Northern Ukraine: patterns and dynamics of illegal amber mining during 1986–2016


Political instability and economic crises may trigger informal, unsustainable and often illegal land use, leading to land degradation. One of the most recent and striking examples of such a phenomenon within Europe is demonstrated by the Polissia region in Northern Ukraine, famous for its amber deposits. Amid severe political disturbances and subsequent economic recession in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, amber mining flourished in the region. However, the extent and spatial pattern of degraded land caused by amber mining over the entire region has remained unknown. To fill this gap and track land surface changes, we used multi-source satellite imagery. We found a gradual decrease of the area without vegetation cover, as a proxy for degraded land, from the late Soviet period until 2014 in most of the analysed administrative districts of Polissia. In contrast to this, we identified substantial conversion of forest and agricultural land to bare soil that occurred between 2014 and 2016, which can be attributed to the rush of illegal amber mining in the region. The estimated total area of affected land on the produced Landsat-based map for 2016 was 1066 ha, 60% of which occurred in 2014–2016. Land cover classification within a key study area suggests that utilization of very high-resolution images from the WorldView-2 satellite enables more accurate mapping of land degradation and identification of small mining sites. Further monitoring of land-use change caused by amber mining is essential to improving understanding of long-lasting environmental impacts on regional ecosystems and biodiversity.

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Our research was also kindly supported by DigitalGlobe Foundation by granting access to very high-resolution images from the WorldView-2 satellite for no cost for which we are very thankful. Finally, we would like to thank three anonymous reviewers for constructive and very helpful remarks on an earlier manuscript version that allowed substantial improving it.


The authors were financially supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) which enabled the academic mobility of A.S. to the Center for Remote Sensing of Land Surfaces at the University of Bonn to carry out the primary part of the conducted study.

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Conceptualization, O.D. and A.S.; methodology, O.D., A.S. and G.G.; data acquisition and coding, G.G. and A.S.; classification and validation, A.S. and G.G.; writing — original draft preparation, A.S.; writing — review and editing, A.S., O.D. and G.G.; funding acquisition, A.S. All the authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Anatoliy Smaliychuk.

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Smaliychuk, A., Ghazaryan, G. & Dubovyk, O. Land-use changes in Northern Ukraine: patterns and dynamics of illegal amber mining during 1986–2016. Environ Monit Assess 193, 502 (2021).

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  • Land degradation
  • Amber
  • Satellite imagery
  • Multi-scale analysis
  • Google Earth Engine