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Environment

The Human Impact on the World’s Forests

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View a high resolution version of this graphic.

World Forest Cover Map

Source: Global forest Watch

world forest cover map

Snapshot of the World’s Forests

View the high resolution version of today’s graphic by clicking here.

Forests cover over 30% of the world’s land, but human activity is chipping away at the tree line.

At the outset of the 20th century, there was approximately 31 million square miles (50 million square km) of forest around the world. Today, that number has shrunk to less than 25 million square miles (40 million square km). Much of this decline can be attributed to expanding agricultural land use and increasing demand for wood and paper products.

Forest Gain and Loss Animation

Source: World Bank

The growth and decline of forest cover is hardly uniform. Deserts, farmland, and urban areas ebb and flow around the world, and while some countries are rapidly removing trees from their ecosystem, others are seeing increases in their forest cover.

Receding Leaf Line

Since 1990, global forested area has shrunk by 2 million square miles (3.1 million square km), with many of those losses occurring in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Gained Forest Area Chart

The Amazon Rainforest, one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet, has faced intense pressure from human activity over the last few decades. Brazil’s expanding network of roads has been critical for economic development, but the landscape often pays the price as the country increases its GDP per capita.

Amazon Deforestation
Rainforest turns to farmland in Brazil’s Rondônia state: 1984–2016

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Africa is grappling with deforestation.

West Africa, for example, has lost a shocking 90% of its forest cover over the last century – in a number of countries, all of the forest outside of protected areas has been logged, while illegal logging threatens parks and reserves.

If nothing is done, we may lose everything.

– Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest

Forest Renewal

Images of slash-and-burn land clearing and denuded hillsides grab the headlines, however, there are a few places in the world where forests are expanding.

Europe, in particular, has seen widespread regeneration of forests over the past century.

Reforestation in Europe

Source: Wageningen

China is another, perhaps surprising, place where there have been big increases in forested areas.

Each year, dust storms blowing in from the expanding Gobi Desert displace as much as 800 square miles (2,000 square km) of topsoil and damage crops adjacent to the expanding desert. In response, the government created the Three-North Shelterbelt Program, which they hope will halt desertification. Thousands of miles of newly-planted vegetation will act like a wall, containing the spread of the Gobi Desert.

The Big Picture

Activities that lead to deforestation differ from region to region, but they’re always economic in nature. Palm oil, logging, raising cattle, and even charcoal production are all ways people can pull themselves out of poverty in developing countries.

The good news is that as per capita incomes in developing countries continue to rise, pressure on forests should lessen.

This theory is best visualized by Kuznets Curve, which demonstrates a link between economic development and environmental degradation.

kuznets curve countries
Click here to view the full sized version.

In regions with lax enforcement, corruption, and a large population of people living below the poverty line, deforestation could remain a problem until economic conditions improve. Thankfully, the five countries with the most forest cover – Russia, Brazil, Canada, U.S., and China – are on or are moving towards a more favorable side of the curve.

Another bright spot in this story is that governments are increasingly protecting habitat in the form of nature reserves and national parks. Since 1990, the amount of nationally protected land in the world has nearly doubled.

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Cities

World Cities Ranked by Average Annual Sunshine Hours

While we all see the same sky, some see it differently, depending on where they live. Today’s graphic ranks world cities by annual hours of sunshine.

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Visualizing the Most and Least Sunshine Hours per Continent

World Cities Ranked by Average Annual Sunshine Hours

View the high resolution of this infographic by clicking here

While we all see the same sky, we see it a bit differently depending on where we stand.

For those in the planet’s most extreme regions, the sun doesn’t follow the same pattern of seasons as it does in more temperate regions.

Today’s visualization comes from Sleepopolis and summarizes the top cities on each continent that receive the most and least annual sunshine hours.

Ranked: Cities with the Least and Most Sunshine Hours

While the graphic groups the top five cities from each continent, the tables below highlight the top 10 cities from around the world that boast the highest and lowest annual sunshine hours.

Top 10 Cities with the Most Annual Sunshine

CityCountryClimate# of Sunshine Hours
YumaUnited StatesArid4,015.3
Marsa AlamEgyptArid3,958.0
Dakhla OasisEgyptArid3,943.4
CalamaChileArid, Marine West Coast, Tundra3,926.2
PhoenixUnited StatesArid3,871.6
KeetmanshoopNamibiaArid3,870.0
Las VegasUnited StatesArid3,825.3
TucsonUnited StatesArid3,806.0
KhargaEgyptArid3,790.8
El PasoUnited StatesSemiarid3,762.5

The sunniest city on Earth is Yuma, Arizona in the U.S. As the driest city in the U.S., Yuma receives less than 200 millimeters (8 inches) of rainfall and endures roughly 100 days of 40°C (104°F) weather every year. Yuma lies between the Gila and Colorado rivers, in a lush region that produces almost 90% of leafy vegetables grown in the U.S.

Arizona boasts three of the top 10 sunniest cities in the world, including Phoenix in the fifth spot, which is the 5th most populous city in the U.S. and is known as “the Valley of the Sun”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Egypt also has three cities in the top 10 list, with Marsa Alam, Dakhla Oasis, and Kharga claiming the 2nd, 3rd, and 9th sunniest spots, respectively. Dakhla Oasis, or “inner oasis”, receives practically zero precipitation each year.

Top 10 Cities with the Least Annual Sunshine

CityCountryClimate# of Sunshine Hours
TotoróColombiaMarine West Coast637.0
TórshavnFaroe IslandsMarine West Coast840.0
ChongqingChinaHumid Subtropical954.8
DiksonRussiaTundra1,164.3
MalaboEquatorial GuineaTropical Wet and Dry1,176.7
BuenaventuraColombiaTropical Wet and Dry, Humid Subtropical1,178.0
LimaPeruArid1,230.0
UshuaiaArgentinaTundra1,281.2
ReykjavikIcelandTundra, Marine West Coast1,326.0
BogotáColombiaMarine West Coast1,328.0

Although perceived as a sunny location, Colombia borders both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, exposing it to higher variety in weather patterns and precipitation. Colombia alone is home to three of the top 10 cities with the lowest hours of annual sunshine.

Ranking second-to-last in the number of sunshine hours, Torshavn lies between the Scottish coast and Iceland and receives roughly 37 days of sunshine every year; the average temperatures on this island barely reach above 5°C (41°F).

Our sun doesn’t shine at the same level of brightness all the time. NASA has observed that the sun goes through “solar cycles” that last roughly 11 years─brightening and dimming at relatively regular intervals and impacting how intensely we receive sunlight at any given time.

Sunshine Near the Poles

Humans typically need exposure to the sun to maintain healthy sleep habits, as our brain has been hardwired to follow natural waking and sleeping rhythms.

However, several cities experience no sun at all for several months at a time in what’s known as the “Polar Night”.

  • Tromsø, Norway: winter darkness is enjoyed rather than endured, as it can last for over a month
  • Svalbard, Norway: even indirect sunlight is absent, with no change in sunlight to help indicate a 24-hour day
  • Dikson, Russia: receives no sunlight whatsoever in December

Wherever you live, people have been watching and tracking the movements of the sun with rapt attention for millennia, even when we couldn’t see it.

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Chart of the Week

Which Companies Are Responsible For the Most Carbon Emissions?

Since 1965, over ⅓ of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions can be traced back to just 20 fossil fuel companies. Who are the biggest contributors?

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20 Companies Responsible For the Most Carbon Emissions?

Since 1965, it’s estimated over 1.35 million metric tons (MtCO₂e) of greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere—and over a third can be traced back to just 20 companies.

This week’s chart draws on a dataset from the Climate Accountability Institute, and highlights the companies which have been responsible for the most carbon emissions in the past half-century.

The Sum of their Carbon Emissions

Between 1965-2017, the top 20 companies have contributed 480,169 MtCO₂e in total carbon emissions, or 35% of cumulative global emissions. This whopping amount is mostly from the combustion of their products—each company on this chart deals in fossil fuels.

The largest contributor? Saudi Aramco, the national petroleum and natural gas company of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco actually comes in first on another list as well—it’s the most profitable company, making over $304 million daily.

However, this financial gain came at a significant cost: the state-owned giant’s operations have resulted in 59,262 MtCO₂e in carbon emissions since 1965. To put that into perspective, this total is more than six times China’s emissions in 2017 alone (9,838 MtCO₂e).

Explore the full list of companies by location, who owns them, and their total 1965–2017 emissions count below:

CompanyCountryOwnershipAll Emissions, MtCO₂e
Total Emissions480,169 MtCO₂e
Saudi Aramco🇸🇦 Saudi ArabiaState-owned59,262
Chevron🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned43,345
Gazprom🇷🇺 RussiaState-owned43,230
Exxon Mobil🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned41,904
National Iranian Oil Co.🇮🇷 IranState-owned35,658
BP🇬🇧 UKInvestor-owned34,015
Royal Dutch Shell🇳🇱 NetherlandsInvestor-owned31,948
Coal India🇮🇳 IndiaState-owned23,124
Pemex🇲🇽 MexicoState-owned22,645
Petroleus de Venezuela🇻🇪 VenezuelaState-owned15,745
PetroChina🇨🇳 ChinaState-owned15,632
Peabody Energy🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned15,385
ConocoPhillips🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned15,229
Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.🇦🇪 UAEState-owned13,840
Kuwait Petroleum Corp.🇰🇼 KuwaitState-owned13,479
Iraq National Oil Co.🇮🇶 IraqState-owned12,596
Total SA🇫🇷 FranceInvestor-owned12,352
Sonatrach🇩🇿 AlgeriaState-owned12,302
BHP Billiton🇦🇺 AustraliaInvestor-owned9,802
Petrobras🇧🇷 BrazilState-owned8,676

A Greener Business Model?

According to the researchers, all the companies that show up in today’s chart bear some responsibility for knowingly accelerating the climate crisis even after proven scientific evidence.

In fact, U.S.-based Exxon Mobil is currently on trial for misleading investors: the company downplayed the effect of climate change on its profitability, while internal calculations proved to be much larger. It also sowed public doubt on the immense impacts of rising greenhouse gas levels on the planet.

Growing sustainability and environmental concerns threaten the viability of old business models for these corporations, causing many to pivot away from the fossil fuel focus. Take BP for example—originally named British Petroleum, the company embraced “Beyond Petroleum” as its new rallying cry. More recently, it launched a carbon footprint calculator and is committed to keeping its carbon emissions flat into 2025.

However, the Climate Accountability Institute argues that more can still be done, with the researchers calling for these companies to reduce their fossil fuel production in the near future.

Continued pressure on these “Big Oil” companies to peak their carbon emissions, and urgently increase their renewable energy investment, may help curb the climate crisis before it’s too late.

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