The effects of humans on the global environment are perceived to be so significant by some scientists that they argue humans have become a major driving force in environmental change on a par with the forces of nature. It is this rapid impact that has led some geologists to unofficially name (but not, as yet, officially recognise) this very recent period of the earth’s history as the Anthropocene.
Putting criticism and disputes over the geologic validity of this idea aside, the effects of human population and economic development as part of the processes of globalisation influence the natural environment as much as the natural environment previously determined the existence of human life across the globe. One part of our footprint are the major communication and transport infrastructure links that shape the human planet.
In the face of unprecendented occurences of extreme weather, loss of species, and pollution, it is clear that climate change is affecting our planet. We cannot afford to wait any longer to act. This quote from the Earth Day 2013 website outlines the theme for this year’s Earth Day campaign which runs under the motto Climate change has many faces.
As the Earth Day campaign points out, the stories of the impact of climate change are extremely diverse: “A man in the Maldives worried about relocating his family as sea levels rise, a farmer in Kansas struggling to make ends meet as prolonged drought ravages the crops, a fisherman on the Niger River whose nets often come up empty, a child in New Jersey who lost her home to a super-storm, a woman in Bangladesh who can’t get fresh water due to more frequent flooding and cyclones.”
All these tales have one thing in common: They are a story of our impact on planet Earth, but equally of the impact of a changing planet on human’s lives. Our species has become one that is not just living in the natural environment, but is one factor that changes the environment to a level that no other species did before. This is happening to an extent that geologists discuss whether this can be seen as a new geologic era. Nobel Prize laureatePaul Crutzen started promoting the idea of the so-called Anthropocene, a concept that has now left the scientific world and is increasingly entering the public debate regarding issues of global sustainability and humanity’s impact. Anthropocene.info is a project initiated by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) that aims to “to help visualize and better understand humanity’s geographic imprint in recent time.” Not only is it important to find better ways of understanding the complex interrelations of humans and their natural environment, to which visualisation can contribute, but also is it important to create a public understanding of issues relating to the challenges connected to global change.
Here is one example of a more challenging view existing knowledge that demonstrates how changing the view can make us rethink the way our natural environment is shaped. According to research by the US National Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, “[t]he strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth’s climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Most hurricanes do not reach their maximum potential intensity before weakening over land or cooler ocean regions. However, those storms that do approach their upper-limit intensity are expected to be slightly stronger in the warmer climate due to the higher sea surface temperatures.”
This is relevant due to the impact of more frequent flooding and cyclones on humans mentioned earlier. So where are these spaces where this is relevant. We know from historic records where there are tropical storm tracks, and the emerging pattern on a normal world map may be familiar to some of us (see here). But what if we change the perspective and focus on the actual areas that have the highest density of tropical storm occurrences. Using the records from 1945 to 2008, this intensity can be turned into quantities which are suitable for visualisation using the gridded cartogram technique. The following map shows a gridded cartogram of tropical storm intensity visualised over land based on a 0.25 degree grid. The larger a grid cell, the more tropical storm activity has there been over the past >60 years, indicating where the most affected areas of tropical cyclones (with a sustained wind speed of ver 40 mp/h) has been and how the climate patterns shape the world in a highly relevant issue of the Anthropocene:
The 5th of March 2012 marks the 500th birthday of Gerardus Mercator, the creator of the world map that profoundly changed our views of the world. He was not the only one who worked on a conformal map projection in the 16th century, which was still an age of exploration and discovery. But he was the first to do the maths right and complete a world map that allowed ships to navigate around the planet by its ability to represent lines of constant course. That makes the Mercator projection a milestone in the history of cartography and remains one of the central map projections up to the present day. Continue reading →
Climate change as discussed at the climate talks in Durban is just one of the complex impact that humans have on the natural environment. The history of humanity is closely linked to benefiting from (or exploiting) the natural environment in order to improve living conditions. “Stone, Iron, Bronze and Steel Ages – the names of these periods have been chosen according to the main materials in use” Continue reading →
499 years after Mercator’s birth we may feel that the age of discovery is long gone. We seem to have explored almost every patch of our planet, considerably supported by Mercator’s famous world map that allowed sailors for the first time to reliably navigate across the world’s oceans. His innovation was a significant contribution to the early days of globalisation. Globalisation has turned our planet into a human planet, where people have become a substantial component of the processes that influence our livelihoods – some go as far as calling this a new geological era, the anthropocene. But while we have maps and images of every spot of the earth, we do not fully understand the human environments and interrelations to the natural environment. Normal maps show where sheep and other lovely creatures of nature live but hide much of the so important populous spaces of humanity.
The maps that I created as part of my PhD research are based on a novel cartogram mapping technique, deploying Gastner/Newman’s diffusion-based cartogram algorithm in a new way. The maps give every person living on this planet the same amount of space, while reducing the least populated places to a minimum. The map projection is calculated from an equally distributed population grid so that, unlike in other cartograms, the transformed grid cells preserve an accurate geographical reference. This allows us to map a diverse range of geographical layers on top of the population projection. The new maps show the social and physical environment in relation to population and provide a fresh perspective on the complex geography of the 21st century world. The following animation shows a series of maps that demonstrate the visual capabilities of the technique (the video can be switched to HD resolution by clicking the 360p note in the bottom panel): Continue reading →