Beautiful Map Exposes Ugly Effect Humans Have Had On The World

Geographers at the University of Cincinnati have created a map to demonstrate just how much the planet has changed over 25 years. The result is a glorious (and slightly trippy) swirl of color. 

Unfortunately, the practical implications of these patterns are not quite as pretty as the design itself. This is because it exposes the fact that as much as 22 percent of Earth’s habitable surface was altered considerably in the years between 1992 and 2015, whether it be due to deforestation, water loss, or urban spread.

“It’s very informative. There is nothing else like it,” said Tomasz Stepinski, a UC professor who worked on the project now published in the International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation.

“There are maps of forest loss but no maps showing everything.”

To create the map, Stepinski and co. used high-resolution satellite images captured by the European Space Agency to study climate change, a process the organization began back in 1992. Specifically, the team used two images – one from 1992 and one from 2015. 

The images are so detailed, the researchers were able to divide them into 300-square-meter (3,200-square-foot) grids (pixels). For each of these pixels, the team used 22 land-use categories (types of forest, farmland, wetlands, grasslands, and urban development) to measure how the environment changed in the space of a quarter of a century. 

But there was a problem. The result was a map so detailed that it was virtually impossible to analyze on a global level. It looked like a “bowl of Fruity Pebbles,” according to a statement on the research.

So instead, the team extended the size of the pixels to 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) and reduced the number of land-use categories to 9. They then used three shades of color to display the extent of the change. This means it’s now possible to see broad trends in land-use change but researchers can still zoom in and study changes on a 300-square-meter scale. 

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White indicates little or no change. Darker shades indicate the highest rate of change in each category. Graphic/Tomasz Stepinski/UC


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