Mapping the Anthropocene

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The effects of humans on the global environment are perceived to be so significant by some scientists that they argue the onset of industrialisation (in the eighteenth century) has been 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 recent period of the earth’s history (from around 1760-onwards) as the Anthropocene (roughly translating as the era – or epoch – shaped considerably through the actions of humanity).

The Human Planet: Gridded Population Cartogram
Gridded population cartogram displaying the topography of the world in relation to the population distribution (click here for larger version)

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Soils of the World

International Year of SoilsHealthy Soils for a Healthy Life is the motto of the UN International Year of Soils which aims to “increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.” As explained on the campaign’s website, “soil is the thin layer of material on the Earth’s surface. It is a natural resource consisting of weathered and organic materials, air and water. As it is the medium in which plants establish themselves and grow, the most widely recognized function of soil is its support for food production. Soil provides nutrients and water that are absorbed through plant roots and contribute to the regulation of water and atmospheric gases and therefore play an important role in climate regulation.”
Soil therefore matters most where is is near human population, which at the same time puts soils under extreme pressure in these areas. Soil types not least determine where humans used to settle when they gave up their nomadic lifestyles and started becoming more stationary as farmers. Nowadays, some of the most fertile soils are found in the most densely populated spaces on the planet, which is shown in the following map. The map shows the major soil types classified in the FAO/UNESCO Soil Map of the World reprojected on a gridded population cartogram where a grid is resized to give every person living within a grid cell an equal amount of space (reducing the map in those spaces most where there are fewest people):

Map of major soil groups
(click for larger version)

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Water worlds: Ocean Chlorophyll levels

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The ocean is the last frontier that has not been discovered by cartogram techniques before. As such, it was an inevitable step in my PhD research some years ago to test the creation of a gridded ocean cartogram, a cartogram that is limited to the extent of the world’s oceans (also linking nicely to my past research on coastal ecosystems).
Chlorophyll concentrations in the world’s oceans are important indicators for the presence of algae and other plant-like organisms that carry out photosynthesis. As such, phytoplankton (which contains the chlorophyll) is an essential element of the food chain in the seas as it provides the food for numerous animals. Variations and changes in the chlorophyll levels are also relevant for the study of the ecology of the sea. Changing chlorophyll levels can indicate changing sea temperatures and other conditions in the oceans that cover about 72 percent of the planet’s surface.

Gridded cartogram visualisation of Ocean Chlorophyll concentrations
(click for larger version)

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Hyperspectral remote sensing and analysis of intertidal zones

The growing amount of remotely sensed data and the ongoing developments in the improvement of spatial and spectral resolutions lead to high expectations. These often inflated expectations are usually not fulfilled. I explored these expectations and aimed to make a contribution to bring them to a more accurate level in research in the field of hyperspectral image analysis of small scale and heterogeneous biotopes in the intertidal zones of coastal areas which I undertook back at my time at the University of Cologne and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research Bremerhaven. Here are some insights from my work.

Map overview of the Study Areas on Helgoland and Sylt
Overview of the study area on the islands of Helgoland and Sylt, Germany
(click for larger version)

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Global tree cover

There is a long tradition in the emotional relationship between people and forests. We can get an understanding of the extent of the global tree cover from satellite sensors such as NASA’s MODIS
Calculating the average tree cover in an area allows us to estimate the extent of the world’s forests. Forest landscapes can be mapped in various ways and is often done in conventional maps. However, much of the land area is not covered by forest and the few remaining untouched forest landscapes keep shrinking while deforestation continues.

Gridded cartogram visualisation of global tree cover
(click for larger version)

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The Space of Climate Change

Earth Day 2013In 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 laureate Paul 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:

Gridded Cartogram / Map of Tropical Storm Intensity
(click for larger version)

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