Animated Map: The Heartbeat of Nature's Productivity
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Animation: The Heartbeat of Nature’s Productivity

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Animation: The Heartbeat of Nature’s Productivity

Even the most ferocious predator must rely on simple plants for vitality. That’s because without the conversion of carbon dioxide to organic compounds, entire food chains would cease to exist.

Photosynthesis is quite the catalyst for life, yet it’s easy to overlook this humble chemical process. But what if you could see its results scaled across the globe?

The Pulse of Nature

Today’s unique cartogram animation comes from geographer Benjamin Hennig at Worldmapper, and it depicts ongoing cycles in the productivity of ecological systems around the world. Created with Yadvinder Malhi from the University of Oxford, the researchers factored the daily net photosynthesis value over an 8-day interval of satellite observations, and extrapolated the trends for a year.

The outcome? A pattern of gross primary productivity (GPP) – the net amount of energy produced by land plants during photosynthesis – resembling the rhythmic impression of a “heartbeat”.

Here’s how a big-picture of average annual productivity ends up looking:

Nature

Location, Location, Location

Although the entire biosphere harnesses the sun’s energy, it’s clear this varies greatly based on both region and season. For example, desert areas such as the Sahara or Australian Outback occupy relatively low productivity areas on the map.

The taiga biome, a boreal forest made of coniferous trees such as pines, accounts for nearly a third of the world’s forest cover. Since the largest boreal areas are in Russia and Canada, it’s no wonder their productivity shrinks dramatically when it gets a bit cooler up north. When these areas slow down in sub-zero temperatures, their tropical neighbors to the south do the heavy lifting.

If forests are considered the world’s lungs, then the Amazon in South America and Congo forest in Central Africa help us all breathe a bit easier. The two largest forests act as crucial “carbon sinks”, trapping carbon that would otherwise be converted to carbon dioxide.

It’s also why rapid deforestation of these areas is cause for alarm. Many environmental scientists suggest that our human impact on forests could intensify global warming.

But there is good news – since the 1990s, the rate of net forest loss has declined by almost half. Progress fares differently across the regions:

Image Source: United Nations

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Visualizing Orangutans: The Most Endangered Great Ape

This graphic highlights the threats that pushed the world’s most endangered great apes to the brink, and what we can do to prevent their extinction.

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The most endangered great ape: Orangutan

Orangutan: The Most Endangered Great Ape

Just 50 years ago, millions of our orange-haired relatives—the orangutans—populated Earth.

But over the past five decades, these numbers have declined by 50%, and orangutans are estimated to completely disappear in the next 50 years. Currently, the world’s most endangered great ape is on a path to extinction.

This illustrated graphic by Shehryar Saharan uses a wide range of information to highlight the threats that led to the downfall of the world’s orangutans, and what can be done to prevent their extinction. Sources include National Geographic, the New England Primate Conservancy, WWF, the IUCN Red List, Current Biology, Our World in Data, Nature, AAAS, and Britannica.

Where Are the Orangutans?

These long-haired, orange, and gentle primates are closely related to humans. They are extremely intelligent, and also crucial to the ecosystem as they help spread the seeds of trees in the forests they inhabit.

Found exclusively in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia, these tree-dwellers are Asia’s only great apes. Their three species are all found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

SpeciesScientific nameLocationDistinct Physical Features
Sumatran OrangutanPongo abeliiSumatra (Indonesia)Wide cheek pads, longer hair.
Bornean OrangutanPongo pygmaeusIsland of Borneo (Indonesia and Malaysia)Small beard, broad face, dark fur.
Tapanuli OrangutanPongo tapanuliensisSumatra (Indonesia)Flat face, Frizzy hair.

Bornean Orangutans

The dark reddish-haired Bornean Orangutans are more likely than the others to come down from their trees and travel the ground in search of fruit. According to the IUCN, their population declined by over 50% in the past 40 years to a range of 55,000‒104,700, making it a critically endangered species.

Sumatran Orangutans

More social than their Bornean cousins, Sumatran Orangutans are often seen feasting on fig trees in large groups and don’t need to travel the ground. Historically distributed over the entire massive island of Sumatra and further south into Java, the species’ range is now restricted to the north of the big island.

Tapanuli Orangutan

Discovered in North Sumatra in 2017, the Tapanuli Orangutan is the newest-discovered great ape and the rarest one. With an estimated population of just 800 surviving individuals, these critically-endangered apes are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Threats

Like wildlife across the world, the orangutan population is threatened by factors like climate change, forest fires, and urbanization and development.

Threats to OrangutansEstimated Population Impacted
Agriculture and Aquaculture28%
Hunting and Trapping22%
Logging and Wood Harvesting14%
Natural System Modifications10%
Climate Change and Severe Weather10%
Residential and Commercial Development8%
Energy Production and Mining7%
Transport and Service Corridors1%

However, the biggest drivers are the orangutan’s loss of habitat due to palm oil production, deforestation, as well as hunting and trapping.

Over the past 20 years, orangutans have lost over 80% of their habitat to deforestation for palm plantations, agriculture, mining, and infrastructure. One palm oil plantation can require thousands of hectares of tropical forests to be bulldozed.

Forced into a smaller areas with less food and shelter, the rest are in a constant game of hide and seek with hunters and poachers looking to capture them for food, artefacts, and the illegal pet trade of baby orangutans.

Our Role in Their Conservation

From lipsticks and body lotion to biofuels and wood, many items we use drive deforestation for their creation.

In the case of orangutans, avoiding items that use the very palm oil produced in plantations that destroy their habitats plays a big role.

On a larger scale, there are organizations like The Orangutan Project that are campaigning to end the deforestation of orangutan habitats and conserve the depleting population.

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