Our Patient Planet: Then and Now
The dramatic and, in some cases, damaging environmental changes sweeping planet Earth are brought into sharp focus in a new atlas launched to mark World Environment Day (WED). Produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), One Planet Many People: Atlas of our Changing Environment compares and contrasts spectacular satellite images of the past few decades with contemporary ones, some of which have never been seen before.
Astrobiology Magazine — The dramatic and, in some cases, damaging environmental changes sweeping planet Earth are brought into sharp focus in a new atlas launched to mark World Environment Day (WED).
Produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), One Planet Many People: Atlas of our Changing Environment compares and contrasts spectacular satellite images of the past few decades with contemporary ones, some of which have never been seen before.
The huge growth of greenhouses in southern Spain, the rapid rise of shrimp farming in Asia and Latin America and the emergence of a giant, shadow puppet-shaped peninsula at the mouth of the Yellow River are among a string of curious and surprising changes seen from space.
They sit beside the more conventional, but no less dramatic images of rain forest deforestation in Paraguay and Brazil, rapid oil and gas development in Wyoming, United States, forest fires across sub-Saharan Africa and the retreat of glaciers and ice in polar and mountain areas.
This year WED is hosted by San Francisco, California with the global theme of Green Cities Plan for the Planet!
The atlas, produced in collaboration with organizations including the United States Geological Survey and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), highlights this theme showing the explosive growth and changes around some of the major cities of the world such as Beijing, Dhaka, Delhi and Santiago (see below).
Also covered are developed world cities including Las Vegas, the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States, and Miami. Miami’s spread westwards may endanger Florida’s famous everglades and their important wildlife and water supplies.
Specially commissioned images of Bucharest, London, Nairobi and San Francisco supplements One Planet Many People.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: ” People living in San Francisco or London may look at these images of deforestation or melting Arctic ice, and wonder what it has to do with them. That these changes are the result of other people’s lifestyles and consumption habits hundreds and thousands of kilometres away. But they would be wrong.”
“Cities pull in huge amounts of resources including water, food, timber, metals and people. They export large amounts of wastes including household and industrial wastes, wastewater and the gases linked with global warming. Thus their impacts stretch beyond their physical borders affecting countries, regions and the planet as a whole,” he added.
“So the battle for sustainable development, for delivering a more environmentally stable, just and healthier world, is going to be largely won and lost in our cities,” said Mr. Toepfer.
“I thank San Francisco for being the WED 2005 host city in this 60th anniversary year of the United Nations and in this important year of reform. And I urge city dwellers everywhere, especially in developed countries, to help to do their bit to make their city more resource efficient and less resource wasteful for the sake of the local and for the sake of the global environment,” he added.
It is hoped that the atlas and its images will concentrate the minds of mayors coming to San Francisco for the week long WED celebrations.
The mayors are set to agree on a series of “Environmental Accords” designed to promote more environmentally-friendly, resource efficient, cities.
One example of how space technology and its application has proven important is that of the Casey Trees Endowment Fund in the District of Columbia, United States.
It was set up in 2001 following a generous donation by philanthropist Betty Brown Casey.
Mrs Casey was moved to action after seeing satellite images, published in 1999, showing the dramatic loss of trees in the District since the 1970s.
Researchers hope that One Planet Many People Atlas of Our Changing Environment will have a similar impact on governments, private business, non governmental organizations and the private individual by highlighting how globalization is driving local and regional change.
Highlights from “One Planet Many People Atlas of Our Changing Environment”
The impact of the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone on the environment of neighboring Guinea is highlighted in the story of Parrot’s Beak.
In 1974 the area was well forested with the local villages and agricultural areas showing up as patches of light gray in a near continuous sea of green.
The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees has now led to widespread deforestation as trees are felled for fuel, construction materials and more crops.
This is clearly seen in the latest satellite image from 2002 with the green colour in retreat and a grey landscape advancing in all directions.
The population growth around Lake Victoria, East Africa, is the highest in Africa as a result of the natural resources found there such as fish.
The phenomenon is shown in a series of images from the 1960s to the present with the population rise charted as a rapid spreading area of red zones.
Of the surrounding countries, Kenya seems to have experienced the largest increase in people within 100km of the lake’s shoreline.
The infestation of Lake Victoria by the invasive, alien weed known as water hyacinth is also spotlighted in a satellite image of 1995.
Large swathes of the weed, which can clog water intake pipes, affect shipping and fishing and act as a habitat for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, are clearly visible as green swirls in places like Uganda’s Gobero Bay, Wazimenya Bay and near the port of Kibanga.
However, the recent introduction of natural insect predators appears to be paying off. The latest satellite image of the Ugandan section of the lake shows that it is almost totally hyacinth-free.
Nairobi, Kenya, has undergone dramatic growth since 1979. Its population at independence in 1963 was 350,000. Nairobi is now home to well over three million making it the largest African city between Johannesburg and Cairo.
The growth is clearly depicted in satellite images from 1979 and the present with the city sprawling to the new suburbs and slums north, east and west. The growth of development along the edge of Nairobi National Park and out to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is also underlined.
Asia Pacific and West Asia
The dramatic disappearance of what was once the world’s biggest date palm forest is highlighted.
Along the Shatt al-Arab estuary in Iraq and Iran, there once stood up to 18 million palms or a fifth of the world’s date trees.
War, pests and the salting-up of the region as a result of dams and the desiccation of the Mesopotamian marshlands have now taken a heavy toll.
Satellite images indicate that more than 14 million trees, or 80 per cent of what were there in the 1970s, have gone.
The date trade from the Shatt al-Arab was once second only to oil. The livelihoods of millions of people dependent on dates for food and income are in ruin.
The OK Tedi copper mine in Papua New Guinea has had a controversial history.
Annually the 20 year-old mine, sited in the rain-forested Star Mountains of the country’s western province, discharges 70 million tonnes of waste. This has spread 1,000km down the OK Tedi and Fly rivers.
Satellite images, taken in 1990 and last year, clearly show changes to the width of a nearby tributary, the OK Mani river, which has now become the primary recipient of the mud, sludge and other wastes.
The wastes have raised the height of local riverbeds triggering more frequent flooding, damaged forests and the area’s rich biodiversity.
The Huang He or Yellow River is the world’s muddiest. It brings huge amounts of sediments, mainly mica, quartz and feldspar, from areas such as the plateaus of north-central China.
A quite remarkable change in the mouth of the river is now seen from space when compared with an image from May 1979.
Here a giant animal-like head has formed, stretching out into the Bohai Sea, as a result of sedimentation from the interior.
The drying up of Lake Balkash, Kazakhstan, is graphically illustrated from space.
Asia’s second largest lake after the Aral Sea, Balkash is crucial for supply water to farmers, towns and cities and industry. It also supports an important fishery.
But excessive water use is causing the lake to dry up and it may disappear altogether unless the trend is reversed.
The atlas shows the drying out round the lake’s edges and the rapid disappearance of two smaller, neighboring lakes to the southeast.
The Wadi As-Sirhan region of Saudi Arabia was once so barren and dry that it could barely support the towns of Al’Isawiyah and Tubarjal.
Seen from space, the area is now a series of curious green dots set against the desert background.
It is a result of a method of high-tech irrigation known as center-pivot-irrigation, which was introduced in the early 1990s. The farms are tapping into ancient, up to 20,000 year-old, underground water supplies.
Satellite images from 1973 to the present day reveal just how bad the situation in the Dead Sea has become.
Both Israel (Europe) and Jordan draw off water from rivers entering the sea and there have been extensive development of evaporation ponds for salt production.
Other developments, including water impoundment projects and land reclamation schemes, are taking their toll.
As a result, it is estimated that water levels in the Dead Sea are dropping by about one metre a year.
The images not only chronicle the huge expansion of evaporation ponds in the southern section of the sea, but also the rapid exposure of arid land around the coastline.
Levels have fallen so much that the southern section is becoming a lake after now being almost cut off from the rest of the sea.
Asia Pacific Cities
It may come as no surprise that Beijing, China’s capital city, has undergone tremendous growth since the start of economic reforms in 1979. Its population now numbers some 13 million.
The satellite images underline just how tremendous this has been with Beijing mushrooming from a small central area to one that has turned towns some distance away, such as Ginghe and Fengtai, into suburbs.
The expansion is seen to have also gobbled up the deciduous forests to the west and the rice, winter wheat and vegetable plots that once surrounded the city.
A similar, huge expansion is seen for Delhi, India’s capital. In 1975, the city had a population of 4.4 million or 3.3 per cent of India’s urban population.
By 2000, the city had well over 12 million inhabitants. By 2010, it is set to rise to nearly 21 million.
The latest satellite images show Delhi’s growth concentrated in the suburbs of Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon.
Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has grown from a city of 2.5 million in the early 1970s to one with more than 10 million. The images chart the spread of urbanization north into Tonji and towards Turag.
Sydney is Australia’s largest city with over four million inhabitants. Its growth is seen spreading west towards the Blue Mountains. The urbanization is leading to more and more homes being built in the bush making them vulnerable to summer fires.
West Asia Cities
The rapid expansion of Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, since 1972 is starkly portrayed.
Over the past 30 years it has grown from 500,000 people to more than two million as a result of migration from urban areas, a decrease in death rates and high birth rates.
The growth has been made possible by Saudi Arabia’s big investments in desalination plants that extract drinking water from seawater.
Seen as small dark and red patch in 1972, the latest satellite image shows a grid-like network of blue lines that are roads and a more than trebling of the urban area.
The atlas focuses on the large, Romanian city of Copsa Mica, which is believed to be one of the sickliest in the world.
The 1986 image shows very high level of air pollution (black). In the image of 2004, the air pollution level has substantially decreased – a positive change in the environment.
The Almeria region of southern Spain was once a typical rural agricultural area, satellite images from 1974 show.
The latest image tells a different story showing how an area of around 20,000 hectares has been transformed into a vast glass-house for producing greenhouse crops.
The development has important implications for Spanish water supplies with the government looking at technologies such as desalination plants.
The Ataturk Dam was built in Turkey on the Euphrates River in 1990. It generates 8.9 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, which is equivalent to over a fifth of the country’s anticipated needs in 2010.
Its impact on the landscape, as seen from space, is dramatic. The flooded areas appear as a large jagged mass of black.
South of the dam, around the town of Harran, the landscape has become green as a result of irrigation schemes made possible by the dam.
Within the European Union, London is the mostly densely packed city after Copenhagen, Brussels and Paris. It is also culturally rich with over 300 languages spoken and nearly a third of its over seven million residents from an ethnic minority.
The population is forecast to rise eight million in around 2020. Satellite images from 1976 and 2004 indicate that London’s shape and area has changed little in the past 30 years.
Bucharest, Romania, has undergone quite important changes over the last 30 years. In the late 1970s satellites reveal that it was a compact, well defined, city of some seven km in radius.
During the 1980s, during the Presidency of Nicolae Ceausecu, villages on the outskirts were dismantled to make way for expansion and centrally planned projects. Today, partly as a result of the re-privatisation of land, people are moving out of the centre into new suburbs.
The massive growth of shrimp farming is brought into sharp focus by satellite images of the Gulf of Fonseca, Honduras.
Honduras is second only to Ecuador in the cultivation and export of shrimp from Latin America.
Over a period of 12 years, the images reveal how shrimp farms and ponds have mushroomed carpeting the landscape around the Gulf in blocks of blue and black shapes.
There are concerns that the shrimp farms are causing significant environmental problems. Mangroves, natural coastal defenses and nurseries for wild-living fish, have been cleared to make way for farms.
The shrimp farms are also linked with pollution and damage to the Gulf’s ecosystems. This is as a result of indiscriminate capture of marine-life during the collection of shrimp larvae to re-stock ponds.
Similar images emerge from the Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Between 1984 and 2000, shrimp aquaculture grew by around 30 per cent to cover 118,000 hectares.
Around 70 per cent of Ecuador’s shrimp farms are located in and around the Gulf of Guayaquil.
The border between Mexico and Guatemala was once biologically diverse. On the Guatemalan side, partly as a result of relatively low populations and the protected status of the Sierra de Lacondon and Laguna del Tigre National Parks, the closed forest canopy remains pretty intact.
But on the Mexican side the atlas tells a different story. Between 1974 and now, huge swathes of the Chiapas forest have disappeared as a result of a rapidly growing population in need of croplands and pasture.
A similar story emerges from the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay from two astonishing images separated by just 30 years.
In 1973, the unique Paranaense tropical rain forest was largely intact. A satellite image from 2003 confirms the loss of over 90 per cent of the forest to agriculture, mainly soybeans and corn.
Most of the loss, seen as a mosaic of colours, is on the Paraguayan and Brazilian borders with far less lost in Argentina reflecting different land use priorities by the countries concerned.
Latin American Cities
Mexico City is one of the fastest growing in the world, as the satellite images clearly show.
In 1973 it had a population of about nine million rising to 14 million in 1986 and almost 18 million in 1999. The population now is likely to be over 20 million.
The city and its infrastructure, shown as gray, can be seen sweeping and sprawling in all directions causing significant deforestation in the mountains west and south.
Similar images reflect the doubling of the population to five million in Santiago, Chile.
The rapid development of Canada’s first diamond mine, located in the Northwestern Territories, is clearly seen from space.
Only a tiny airstrip is seen in the pre-mining image of 1991. Today the Ekati Mine site, including roads and other infrastructure, is clearly visible as a large spreading area of white.
Wildlife officials are radio-tracking caribou herds, which range in size from 350,00 to a million animals, in order to gauge if the mining activities are affecting their behaviour.
The impact of logging on the temperate forests of British Columbia, Canada is also clearly visible by satellites.
The landscape around Great Beaver, Carp and McLeod lakes switches from a reasonably pristine one in 1975 to what is now a brown patchwork quilt due to accelerated logging.
A massive development of oil and gas wells in the Upper Green River, Wyoming, United States, is visible from space.
In 1989 the area, which is home to large herds of migrating pronghorn antelope and mule deer, is seen as a relatively undisturbed landscape.
An image from 2004 tells a different story highlighting the emergence of some 3,000 wells. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the rate of well establishment exceeds its development plan by 300 per cent.
North America Cities
San Francisco, as seen from space, is a densely populated city with 15,000 people per square mile. It is the second most densely populated area in the United States after New York, which has 24,000 people per square mile.
One of the most striking features of satellite images of San Francisco is the preservation of its urban forests over the past 30 years.
The growth of Las Vegas, set in the Nevada desert, has been spectacular since the early 1970s.
In the 1950s it was home to just over 24,000 people. Today, the population tops one million, not including tourists, and may double by 2015.
The images reveal how the city has spread in all directions displacing the few vegetated lands and replacing natural desert with housing and irrigated golf courses.
Lake Meade, formed by the Hoover Dam, dropped 18 meters from 2000 to 2003.
Despite the regions third worst drought in recent history, new golf courses continue to be developed.
The atlas chronicles the growth of the Fort Lauderdale-Miami area over the past 30 years clearly showing the conversion of farmland into cityscapes and the spread of Miami south and west towards the Everglades National Park.
The Everglades is not only home to important wildlife, such as the Florida panther. The Everglades filter groundwater and re-charge the Biscayne Aquifer.
Part of the mission of the Federal “Smart Growth” Task Force is to try and better manage urban sprawl in the area in order protect the Everglades and the ecosystem services it provides.
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