World Lightning: Thunderstorms and human population

Time again to talk about the weather: Britain is suffering under heatwave conditions (also known as summer in other parts of the world), with the ongoing high temperatures and developing clouds going along with an increased humidity slowly increasing the risk for thunderstorms. Thunderstorms are not an uncommon phenomenon on the British Isles, but they are much less common and much less severe compared to other regions experiencing similar conditions much more frequently and more intensively. The Met Office explains that “Owing to the fact thunderstorms are created by intense heating of the earth’s surface, they are most common in areas of the globe where the weather is hot and humid. Land masses therefore experience more storms than the oceans and they are also more frequent in tropical areas than the higher latitudes. In the UK thunderstorms are most common over the East Midlands and the south-east.
As it happens to be, the part most prone to thunderstorms in Britain is also the most densely populated region. Comparing this to other parts of the world, it can be seen that some of the most risky regions are also some of the very densely populated places. In Europe, which is overall densely populated in many parts, the most affected areas are the people living in the Mediterranean countries, although the European population in general is amongst the least affected by thunderstorms when comparing this to areas such as the southern edge of the Himalayas in India – densely populated and experiencing very intensive thunderstorms. These details only emerge when changing the projection of data collected on lightning flashes from a conventional land area map (where this part of India for instance remains comparably small) to a gridded population cartogram. The following map shows the intensity of lightning flashes displayed as the number of flashes per square kilometre per year in each of the grid cells, while the distortion of the grid cells reflects the global population distribution, so that the most and least exposed populations are highlighted in this visualisation:

Equal population projection map of
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7 Billion and beyond

Predicting future population chances remains a difficult issue. But while popular (and populist) media tends to dramatise every new release of population predictions, it is less often discussed that these figures are one possible scenario for what is an extremely complex issue. Small political and cultural changes in societies can lead to drastic long terms effects that change the future numbers of people within a country. The current estimates are therefore never figures that are engraved in stone, but estimates that look at the current trends that we can observe. The different scenarios therefore have an extreme variability, ranging from a decline down to just above 6 billion to an increase up to almost 16 billion. These are of course the very extreme scenarios in the latest revision of the Unites Nations’ World Population Prospects that has just been released. While it is almost certain that any scenario is likely to not happen in that way, the trends outlined in the report are in important political guideline that tells, what humanity should be prepared for and which economic, ecological and other implications the different scenarios have for the future. The following map shows a population cartogram of the most recent population estimates where each country is resized to its total population in 2013 (approximately 7.1 billion):

World Population Cartogram 2013
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A Cold World

Winter 2013
While much of Europe has been denied a white Christmas, many of us were still having a white snow cover while the clocks went forward for ‘summer’ time this weekend. But although it appears that this winter is never-ending, it mainly comes very late this year. The coldest of temperatures and the main snowfall arrived in February and March, while the early winter months were even above average in some areas of central Europe.
Regular observations are collected regularly by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite, which records data about the land surface temperature (i.e. “how hot the ‘surface’ of the Earth would feel to the touch in a particular location“, a different measure than the air temperature we see on the weather reports every day). This map shows the land surface temperature anomaly this March compared to the average temperatures from 1951 to 1980 projected on a gridded population cartogram where every grid cell is resized according to its total population. The projection used in this visualisation shows, how the world’s population was exposed to the temperature anomalies in the late spell of winter last month:

Global Temperature Anomaly in March 2013 shown on an equal-population projection
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Earth at Night


Earth HourIn 2007 nature conservation organisation WWF initiated a campaign “encouraging households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights for one hour to raise awareness about the need to take action on climate change” (Wikipedia). The campaign is called Earth Hour and always takes place at the end of March – this year on Saturday, the 23rd.
The Earth Hour campaign has motto of “uniting the world to protect the planet”, although certainly not everyone will join in switching off their lights at 8.30 pm to unite each time zone with a dark night sky (and there is criticism of campaigns like this). But the wealthier parts of the world will be the main focus, as large parts of the poor world live in relative darkness at night anyway. NASA’s composite satellite image of the world at night (as featured on this website before) that gives us an indication of where light pollution affects most of the night skies has just received an update recently. Earth at Night 2012 was published by the NASA Earth Observatory last December, promising nothing less that “It’s the end of the night as you know it; you’ll see fine.” The resolution and level of detail revealed in the data is stunning, so that I reworked my version of the Earth at Night in an equal population projection using a gridded cartogram transformation. The new gridded population cartogram of the Earth at Night gives an equally stunning insight into how human activity relates to the distribution of light at night, showing the already highlighted inequalities that became apparent in the old version of the map in even greater detail where large parts of the populations in Africa and also in some parts of Asia live in the shadows of the wasteful brightness of the wealthy world. The Earth at Night as seen by humanity – an image of an unequal world:

Equal population projection map of the Earth at Night
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Cartograma cuadriculada de la población de Ecuador

The people of Ecuador are going to the polls today, voting at the first general election after the constitutional court resolved the Democracy Code in 2012. This comes at an interesting time from a British perspective, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange still calls London’s Ecuadorian embassy his home. Ecuadorians may care little about this international diplomacy row, and some may be more interested in issues regarding press freedom in their home country. But after many years of economic uncertainty and political instability following the collapse of the banking system in 1999, many other questions will rate far more important at these elections in a country that is extremely diverse for its size, not only in its nature, but also its population.
Ecuador is a patchwork of indigenous communities, including people of colonial Spanish origins and the descendants of African slaves” (quoted from the BBC Country Profile Ecuador). For a country of only 283,561 sq km size (slightly smaller than Nevada, as the CIA World Factbook puts it), Ecuador has a remarkably diverse natural environment: The continental area stretches from the tropical rainforests in the east over the Andean highlands to the low lying coastal zone. And 1,000 km westwards off the coast the Galapagos Islands form the volcanic outpost of the country.
The population of over 15 million people is concentrated in two of these four major regions: ‘La Costa’ – the coastal region – is home to Ecuador’s largest city Guayaquil (2.3 million people), while the capital Quito (1.6 million people) is located in ‘La Sierra’ – the highlands at an elevation of over 2,800 m above sea level). Despite their high altitude, the Ecuadorian part of the Andes is home to a considerable population almost equal to the coastal areas. The less accessible rainforest region as well as the the Galapagos Islands in contrast are home to only small numbers of people.
The distribution of Ecuadors population is visualised in the following gridded population cartogram (a ‘cartograma cuadriculada de la población ‘ in Spanish), which is a much improved display compared to the original version of this map that I created in 2009 for the World Population Atlas. The improved resolution is made possible by using the LandScan population data which in this case provides a better estimate for the real distribution of people than the SEDAC GPWv3 data. The map shows an equal-sized grid over the land area of Ecuador resized according to the total number of people living in each of the grid cells, so that larger grid cells reflect higher numbers of people, while depopulated areas almost disappear from the map.
The green to brown colours in the map reflect the altitude of the areas, so that the coastal and mountainous regions are clearly distinguishable. The transitional zones of intermediate shadings (and elevations) almost disappear from this map, which shows the relatively small numbers of people living where relief gradients are steepest. The rainforest region (La Amazonía, or also El Oriente as it is situated in the east) which makes almost half of the land area, is equally underrepresented in this map, as it is home to less than 5% of the population. This is the human shape of Ecuador:

Gridded Cartogram / Map of the Population of Ecuador
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The Worldmapper Rainbow

A question often asked about Worldmapper is in regard to our choice of colours for the different regions and countries. On the website we briefly explain that the colours used on the maps group the territories into 12 geographical regions, and allow for an easier visual comparison between the maps than would otherwise be possible. The shading of each territory within a region is consistent throughout all of the maps.” But there is a little bit more to the colours which tell a story about the unequal fortunes of the world which follow a general pattern along the major regions.
The colours of the world’s regions are chosen very consciously, and have a deeper sense behind their distribution. We split the world into twelve contiguous geographical regions of population groups, with every region being roughly symmetrically balanced and having at least a population of one hundred million people. This is how the world’s population is distributed:
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