Invisible Stars: Mapping America’s Rural Light Pollution
From the bright lights of Times Square to the high-powered flood lights of a suburban Walmart, we expect our cities to give off a certain amount of light pollution. Even though our view of the universe is largely blotted out around city centers, there’s a measure of comfort in knowing an inspiring view of a starry night is only a short drive away.
Increasingly though, economic activity in America’s rural spaces is casting a glow into the sky, and now four out of five people in North America cannot see the Milky Way at night.
Today’s map, from geographer and journalist, Tim Wallace, is a different perspective on light pollution in the United States. The map was created by subtracting population from light output, which highlights areas that throw off more light than predicted given their population density.
On this style of map, it isn’t the glowing metropolitan centers of New York and Los Angeles that stand out, but regions like the oil-rich corner of South Dakota or the final leg of the Mississippi River. Let’s zoom in and investigate what’s happening in these unexpected illumination zones.
Oil & Gas
Some of the most prominent patterns on the map appear in regions where shale oil is being extracted.
In a relatively short amount of time, America became the largest oil producer on the planet. One of the major factors that fueled record production for shale oil producers was the proliferation of multi-well pad drilling — when multiple wells are drilled from a single drill site. From the air, it’s easy to spot these well formations spreading across the landscape, but the effect is even more pronounced at night.
At times, oil production is so strong that drillers flare the excess natural gas. In North Dakota alone, there are nearly 14,000 producing wells, and the resulting flares are what create the distinctive grid patterns on the map.
One of the brightest areas per capita in the country is Loving County, Texas. The county has around 100 residents, but more than 6,000 drilled wells.
Another point of interest on the map is Louisiana’s “petrochemical corridor”, running between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. An overhead view of Southern Louisiana in the daytime will be punctuated by the “ribbon farms” flanking the Mississippi River — a nod to the region’s history of French settlement.
At night though, a different scene emerges. Over 100 sprawling petrochemical facilities run by companies like Dow Chemical and Union Carbide dot the landscape, a patchwork of highly-illuminated plots.
Some types of infrastructure are typically located away from the city center. Airports, power stations, and racetracks, for example, need a lot of space and aren’t the most popular neighbors.
Another type of facility has been replacing farmland in recent years — logistics hubs. Many of the bright spots on the map outside cities show the warehouses and sortation centers that feed our growing demand for e-commerce.
In the example above, companies like Amazon, Home Depot, Dollar Tree, and Ikea have all clustered their facilities in the sparsely populated farmland south of Joliet, Illinois. This trend is repeated around the country, resulting in the “halos” of light that ring most cities on the map.
Flipping the Switch on Light Pollution
Though light isn’t toxic or overtly damaging to the natural landscape, it can still have a serious impact on wildlife, as well as blunting the beauty of the night sky.
The good news is that light is one of the easiest forms of pollution to prevent. New technologies and lighting techniques aren’t just good for our night skies, they’re generally more energy efficient as well.
Just as economic incentive lured buildings and infrastructure to America’s natural spaces, it may be energy efficiency that helps us return more of the night sky to its natural state.
Vegetarianism: Tapping Into the Meatless Revolution
This graphic unearths the origins of the meatless revolution, while exploring how the $1.8 trillion meat market is responding to the threat of disruption.
Vegetarianism: Tapping into the Meatless Revolution
The way people choose and consume their food is changing, and it’s encouraging a sweeping shift from animal-based to plant-based food products.
Whether it’s from the perspective of environmental impact, cruelty to animals, or health benefits, meatless diets are quickly becoming a new normal for people around the world—but where did it all begin?
Today’s infographic unearths the origins of vegetarianism and explores how the industry erupted into a lucrative web of sub-categories that are whetting the appetite of investors the world over.
The Origins of the Meat-Free Diet
Taking a holistic view of vegetarianism, there are several different diets that people typically adhere to. A vegetarian for example, doesn’t eat meat but still consumes animal products such as dairy and eggs. On the other hand, a vegan eats a strictly plant-based diet.
With 70% of the global population now reducing their meat intake, veganism has become a lifestyle choice for many. By 2026, the global market is projected to be worth over $24 billion.
While this seems like a relatively new phenomenon, the meatless revolution has been quietly building for almost two centuries.
- 1847: The first vegetarian society is formed in England
- 1898: The world’s first vegetarian restaurant opens in Switzerland
- 1944: The term “vegan” is coined
- 1994: The first World Vegan Day is introduced
- 2014: Influential breakout documentary Cowspiracy is released
- 2017: 6% of the entire U.S. population claim to be vegan
- 2018: Roughly 8% of the global population claim to eat plant-based
- 2020: Acceptance of plant-based diets by both the medical community and general public is at an all-time high
Although vegetarian and vegan diets were once heavily stigmatized, global support is now growing.
Towards a Plant-Based Future
Today, people in dozens of countries are making big strides towards plant-based lifestyles.
China, for example, introduced guidelines to help its population of 1.3 billion people reduce their meat consumption by 50%. These ambitious goals will be driven by consumer’s growing understanding of the positive impacts of eating less meat, such as:
- Health benefits
According to the American Heart Association, reducing meat intake could reduce the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers.
- Environmental impact
Animal agriculture creates more greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transportation systems combined, but shifting to a plant-based diet could significantly reduce this problem.
- Animal welfare
Roughly two thirds of the 70 billion animals farmed annually are cramped in close quarters and given heavy medication. Plant-based diets eliminate animal suffering while lowering demand for other animal food products.
In fact, if more people commit to embracing a plant-based lifestyle, it could result in up to $31 trillion—or 13% of global GDP—in savings for the economy.
Big Players Fight For a Piece of the Pie
Given the newfound consumer demand for meat alternatives, it’s no surprise that global companies are clamouring to enter the market.
Many established food companies such as Nestlé and Danone are either advancing their own formula for plant-based proteins, or acquiring companies with existing experience.
Meanwhile, fast food chain McDonald’s features vegan products as permanent staple on their menu, and report an 80% uplift in customers buying these products in certain countries.
Big Meat Shifts Gears
As new players in the space attempt to cut into the $1.8 trillion global meat market, big meat companies are responding in kind.
Tycoons such as Tyson Foods and Cargill are placing bets on plant-based startups and filling shelves with their own plant-based products.
But while plant-based products created by traditional meat companies may appeal to less rigid flexitarians, vegans and vegetarians may not accept them so readily due to their strong ethics.
Food For Thought
Along with the uncertainty of how these products will be received, there are other challenges that the market must overcome in order to be considered truly accessible. For instance, plant-based alternatives boast higher price points than their predecessor’s products, which may deter consumers from entering en masse.
Regardless, it is clear that the shift to plant-based diets is a disruptive force that could change the food industry over the long term. Early movers are dangling a golden carrot in front of investors—but will they take a bite?
Visualizing the Human Impact on the Ocean Economy
The ocean economy is under threat. How are human activities impacting the sustainable use of our ocean assets, valued at over $24 trillion?
Visualizing the Human Impact on our Ocean Economy
When you think of economic output, it’s likely the ocean isn’t the first entity that comes to mind. But from facilitating international trade to regulating the climate, the “blue economy” contributes significant value in both tangible and intangible ways.
The sustainable use of the ocean and its resources for economic development and livelihoods have such far-reaching effects, that its protection is a significant goal of the United Nations, as well as for many other countries and organizations throughout the world.
However, these vital ocean assets are in danger of sinking quickly. Ahead of World Oceans Day on June 8, 2020, we look at the total value of assets that come from our ocean, and how various human activities are affecting these resources.
Global Ocean Asset Value
Economic value from all the oceans is measured both by their direct output, as well as any indirect impacts they produce.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, these combined assets are valued at over $24 trillion. Here’s how they break down:
- Direct Output: Marine fisheries, coral reefs, seagrass, and mangroves
Total value: $6.9T
Examples of direct output: Fishing, agriculture
- Trade and Transport: Shipping lanes
Total value: $5.2T
- Adjacent Assets: Productive coastline, carbon absorption
Total value: $7.8T, and $4.3T respectively
Examples of services enabled: Tourism, education/conservation (such as jobs created)
In fact, the annual gross marine product of the oceans is comparable to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of countries, coming in at $2.5 trillion per year—making it the world’s eighth largest economy in country terms.
Unfortunately, experts warn that various human activities are endangering these ocean assets and their reliant ecosystems.
The Cumulative Human Impact on Oceans
An 11-year long scientific study tracked the global effect of multiple human activities across diverse marine environments. The researchers identified four main categories of stressors between 2003-2013.
- Climate change: Sea surface temperature, ocean acidification, and sea level rise
- Ocean: Shipping
- Land-based: Nutrient pollution, organic chemical pollution, direct human pollution, light pollution
- Fishing: Commercial and artisanal fishing, including trawling methods
Across the board, climate stressors were the most dominant drivers of change in a majority of marine environments. Similarly, pollution levels have also increased for many ecosystems.
Plastic pollution is especially damaging, as it continues to grow at unprecedented rates, with a significant amount ending up in the oceans. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.
Among the various marine environments, coral reefs, seagrasses, and mangroves proved to be most at-risk, experiencing the fastest increase in cumulative human impact. However, these are also the same ecosystems that we rely on for their direct economic output.
Overall, climate-induced declines in ocean health could cost the global economy $428 billion annually by 2050.
The Ocean Economy is in Hot Water
It can be difficult to truly understand the scale at which we rely on the ocean for climate regulation. The ocean is a major “carbon sink”, absorbing nearly 30% of the carbon emitted by human activity. But acidity levels and rising sea surface temperatures are changing its chemistry, and reducing its ability to dissolve CO₂.
According to the UN, ocean acidification has grown by 26% since pre-industrial times. At our current rates, it could rise to 100-150% by the end of the century. Overfishing is another urgent threat that shows no signs of slowing down, with sustainable fish stocks declining from 90% to 66.9% in just over 40 years.
To try and counteract these issues, this year’s virtual World Oceans Day is focused on “Innovation for a Sustainable Oceans” to discuss various solutions, including how the private sector can work with communities to maintain the blue economy. In addition, there’s a petition in place to urge world leaders to help protect 30% of the natural world by 2030.
Will our human activities continue to stress the ocean economy, or will we be able to positively reverse these trends in the years to come?
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