Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Watch the World Change

A slightly belated Happy Earth Day to everyone!

One of my jobs at the museum this month was to set up a bunch of interactive tables for our Earth Day celebration.  My favorite of the tables was labeled “The Changing Environment” and it featured a series of maps, on paper and on slide shows, showing how our planet has changed in recent years, largely due to human activities.  Maps are a great visual representation of the state of the planet, and some of the maps I found were quite powerful.  I thought I'd share them.

Global Forest Change
Habitat loss is one of the greatest dangers to natural ecosystems, and deforestation is one of the most widespread forms of loss.  A team at the University of Maryland compiled twelve years of satellite image data on global forest cover, and used this information to create an interactive map showing how our forests have been changing.

Let’s take a look at just a few of their images.

This is North America, showing areas where forest was gained from 2000-2012 (in blue),
and areas where forest was lost (in red).  Some areas have been experiencing both gain
and loss, but overall, losses dominate.
And this is the same data for South America.
This one is fairly terrifying.
There are many more settings the Global Forest Change map can display, and many more places on the globe to look.  You can play around with the map on your own here.

Global Temperature Anomalies
Despite the extensive political debating (at least in my country), there is absolutely no denying that the world is getting warmer.  NASA’s Earth Observatory collects global data on all sorts of information including precipitation, atmospheric components, snow, temperature, and more.  The map that caught my eye this Earth Day was their Global Temperature Anomalies map.

Let me explain what we’re seeing here.  This map identifies “normal” temperatures arbitrarily as the average of global temperatures between 1951 and 1980.  Average temperatures lower than that standard are shown in blue, and average temperatures warmer than that standard are shown in red.

The central map (1950s) is light since it is part of the chosen average range.  The years
before that tend to be colder, and afterward warmer, as the world gradually warms.
The full slideshow and explanation are available at the NASA Earth Observatory website, as well as a collection of other interesting maps of global data.

Google Timelapse
This is my favorite one.

Google and TIME partnered together to create Timelapse, basically, the same as Google Earth, but instead of showing satellite data for today alone, it scrolls through satellite data collected from the last 30 years, allowing you to watch the world change anywhere on the globe that you choose.  

These images are impressive, but still pictures don't really do the project justice - you need to see it in action.

Here’s a quick list of places on the map I’ve found to be fascinating.  Take a look!

Environmental damage:
-Aral Sea (The sea has been drying rapidly due to water diversion for irrigation)
-Latrobe Valley, Victoria Australia (Coal mining across the surface)
-The Amazon Rainforest (Extremely rapid deforestation)

Urban Expansion:
-Las Vegas
-Dubai (Look at the coastal expansion!)

Climate change:
-Elephant Butte Lake, New Mexico (Drying due to drought)
-Lake Urmia, Iran (Drying due to drought and water diversion)
-Colubmia Glacier, Alaska (Glacial ice retreat)
-Greenland (Sea ice is disappearing along the coast)
-In fact, you ca see ice disappear all over the northern hemisphere.

Shifting environments:
-Ugayali River, Peru (The river shifts and changes course naturally over time!)
-North Carolina Outer Banks (The shoreline naturally changes slowly)

And there are tons of other places to look on the Timelapse map.  Search for yourself!  If you find something really cool, post it in the comments!

Earth Day is always a solemn day for me; in trying to celebrate the Earth, I am reminded of all the ways it is suffering.  I think the kind of information presented on these maps is fascinating, powerful, and informative.  Efforts are being made all over the world to better understand and better care for our lovely planet, and that, I think, is worth celebrating.

Happy Earth Day.

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