Santa’s New Home: The North Pole is Moving to Russia
The North Pole is moving and quickly. Is someone stealing Christmas?
It is not the Grinch or Vladimir Putin that is stealing Santa’s workshop, but instead it’s the natural processes of the Earth that are moving the North Pole. In fact, since scientists have been tracking the anomaly in the Arctic, the North Magnetic Pole has been shifting towards Russia.
So why exactly is the pole moving, and what does it mean?
Charting a Course: Magnetic North
A compass always points towards the North Magnetic Pole. Maritime and airplane navigation systems, defense systems, and even smartphones depend on accurate magnetic readings.
This magnetism has been long known, but the true origins of this force were poorly understood. In one of the first maps of the Arctic by Gerardus Mercator, the centerpiece of it was massive rock located exactly at the pole, Rupus Nigra et Altissima, or “Black, Very High Cliff.”
Most people thought that this rock formation was magnetic, which provided an easy explanation for why compasses point north. This did not convince Mercator, so he included a different rock, which he labeled the “Magnetic Pole.”
Mercator was right about the general location of Magnetic North, but he did not have the tools we have today to understand how the anomaly moves. The North Magnetic Pole is a spot on the top of the planet where the Earth’s magnetic ﬁeld lines converge and drive straight into its core.
As it turns out, the Earth’s physical structure is behind all this magnetic shifting. The planet’s inner core is made of solid iron, while surrounding that is a molten metallic outer core. It’s from here that heat escapes, creating electric currents in the conductive iron alloys in the core.
In other words, the processes that create the magnetic effect are far more complex — and occur way deeper in the planet — than Mercator could have ever imagined.
The Dynamo Effect
The Earth itself spins on its axis. The inner core spins as well, and it spins at a different rate than the outer core. This creates a dynamo effect that enables the Earth’s magnetic field.
Satellite data tracking the Earth’s magnetic field indicate that the pole is moving faster across the Arctic than previously recorded. While it’s hard to estimate an exact date by which the North Pole will lie in Russia (due to contested geographic claims in the Arctic), it will eventually get there.
What surprises scientists is the rate at which the movement has increased in recent history:
This is happening because of a push and pull between two unusually strong magnetic patches in the Earth’s outer core. One patch is under Canada while the other is beneath Siberia.
The North Magnetic Pole has historically lain within Canadian borders because of stronger pull of the Canadian magnetic patch, but that is changing rapidly.
The Evidence: How Do We Know What We Know?
Scientists can study the phenomenon of moving poles by examining the rocks lying on the ocean floor that captured magnetic traces of previous orientations of the Earth’s magnetic field.
According to the geological record, the last time the poles switched was ~780,000 years ago, and it has happened about 400 times in 330 million years. Each reversal takes roughly a thousand years to complete. The field has weakened about 10% in the last 150 years. Some scientists think this is a sign of a flip in progress.
Technology is advancing and providing new tools for scientists to study this phenomenon. In 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the SWARM mission to study the Earth’s magnetic field using satellites. This will provide data for modeling the geomagnetic field and its interaction with other physical aspects of Earth, offering a look inside the Earth from space.
Happy Holidays from Visual Capitalist
Just like Santa going down the chimney of every home to deliver presents to all the girls and boys, Visual Capitalist wants to deliver a better understanding of the world we live in, so we can better appreciate how amazing it is. This is our small present to the world.
Happy Holidays to all, and a prosperous New Year.
Mapped: The Anatomy of Land Use in America
The U.S. covers an immense 3.8 million square miles—what is all this land currently used for, and what does that mean for the future?
Mapped: The Anatomy of Land Use in America
The United States is not just an economic and political giant on the global stage—the country also has one of the largest land masses at its disposal.
Altogether, the country spans 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million km²)—making it the third largest country in the world. Even without factoring Alaska and Hawaii into the calculations, the contiguous U.S. land mass can fit up to 30 European countries within it.
With this much ground to work with, it raises the natural question of how land actually gets used by America’s economy. For example, what percentage of land is taken up by urban areas, and how much farmland and forests exist in comparison?
Today’s maps from the McHarg Center put America’s wide variety of land uses into perspective.
The Components of U.S. Land Use
As the U.S. prepares to add 100 million more people this century, the “2100 Project: An Atlas for the Green New Deal” provides a snapshot of U.S. land use (as of 2017), aimed at managing resources to support this future.
According to this data, here is a snapshot of land use in the Lower 48 States:
|Land type||Land use (%)||Land area|
|Grasslands and Pasture||17%||530,400 mi²|
|Open Space||3%||93,600 mi²|
|Urban Areas||2%||63,400 mi²|
Let’s dive into the specifics of three types of land: urban areas, forests, and agriculture.
Editor’s note: click on any map below to see a large, high-resolution version, which will open in a new window.
Small But Mighty: U.S. Urban Areas
It’s clear that even a little space goes a long way. Although urban areas take up only 2% of land, an overwhelming majority of Americans call cities their home. As of 2018, urbanites made up over 82% of the U.S. population.
Where people go, productivity often follows. In 2018, it’s estimated that 31 county economies made up a whopping 32% of national GDP. Most of these counties were located in and around major cities, such as Los Angeles or New York.
Although urban areas are a small part of the overall land they’re built on, they’re integral to the nation’s continued growth. According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, it’s estimated that by 2030, 60% of job growth could come from just 25 hubs.
Seeing Green: America’s Vast Forests
On the flipside, forests account for over a quarter of land in the U.S., divided almost evenly between deciduous and evergreen trees. Many protected national and state parks can also be found in and around forests.
On the mainland, California and Oregon are the states with the most forested land—unfortunately, they have also been plagued by wildfires in recent, dry summer months.
Wetlands are also included in the map above, particularly around the southern tip of Florida, where Everglades National Park is located. Over the years, many wetlands were drained to make way for agriculture, particularly in the Great Lakes megaregion. As a result, it’s estimated that their area today is only half of what they once used to be.
Home Grown: Agriculture in the U.S.
Last but not least, the final set of maps show where America grows its food. Agricultural, food, and related industries contributed $1.05 trillion (5.4%) to U.S. GDP in 2017.
Wheat, corn, and soybeans are the major crops grown in the U.S.—and cotton also makes the cut as a profitable non-food crop. Much of these crops feed not only Americans, but other parts of the world too. Soybeans, corn, and wheat are exported across the Pacific mainly to China and Japan.
Corn, in particular, is a unique crop with a myriad of uses, from food to fuels. Up to 40% of U.S. corn is turned into livestock feed, with cows consuming over half (56%) of this amount.
Although fewer American consumers are opting for meat in their diets, production has remained at high rates. Further, as incomes continues to increase worldwide, the global appetite for meat is set to rise along with it.
Future Land Use
The U.S. population is set to grow by 100 million more people over the coming decades, raising the pressure on limited U.S. land and natural resources. This pressure will be felt everywhere, from dense urban land to agricultural farmland.
How the land gets utilized will shape the country’s future for years to come.
Timelapse Maps: An Overview of Our Changing Planet
From rapid urbanization to retreating glaciers, these timelapsed satellite maps capture the drastic changes the Earth’s surface has undergone.
Humankind’s impact on the world is obvious, but our spatial patterns are sometimes difficult to recognize from the ground.
Publicly accessible, high-quality satellite imagery has been a game changer in terms of understanding the scope of forces such as urbanization and land use patterns.
Google Timelapse Maps
Google Earth’s timelapsed satellite maps capture the drastic changes the planet’s surface has undergone over the past 34 years. Each timelapse comprises 35 cloud-free pictures, which have been made interactive by the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.
Three different satellites acquired 15 million images over the past three decades. The majority of the images come from Landsat, a joint USGS/NASA Earth observation program. For the years 2015 to 2018, Google combined imagery from Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2A. Sentinel is part of the European Commission and European Space Agency’s Copernicus Earth observation program.
Deforestation, urban growth, and natural resource extraction are just some of the human patterns and impacts that can be visualized.
Editor’s note: to view the following timelapses, press the play button on any map. You can also view individual years in the time periods as well. On slower internet connections you may need to have patience, as the series of images can take some time to load or display.
Cities and Infrastructure
Urban Growth: Pearl River Delta, China
Up to 1979, China’s Pearl River Delta had seen little urbanization. However in 1980, the People’s Republic of China established a special economic zone, Shenzhen, to attract foreign investment. In the following years, buildings and paved surfaces rapidly replaced the rural settings around the river delta. This is the Lunjiao area just south of Guangzhou.
Urban Growth: Cairo, Egypt
The present-day location of Cairo has been a city for more than 1,000 years, and its constrained urban footprint is now bursting at the seams thanks to Egypt’s population growth. A new city is being built in the nearby stretch of desert land (agricultural land is scarce) that will one day replace ancient Cairo as Egypt’s capital. If the government’s ambitious plans are realized, this desert boomtown could have a population of over 6 million people.
The Egyptian state needed this kind of project a long time ago. Cairo [is] a capital that is full of traffic jams, very crowded. The infrastructure cannot absorb more people.
– Khaled el-Husseiny Soliman
Urban Growth: Phoenix, Arizona
According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Phoenix is the fastest-growing city in the United States. Over the past two decades, the suburb of Chandler evolved from agricultural uses to sprawling residential developments. This pattern was repeated in a number of cities in the Southern U.S., most notably Las Vegas.
Construction: The Brandenburg Airport, Germany
Berlin’s long overdue Brandenburg Airport began construction in 2006, with the airport initially expected to open in 2011. However, the airport has been subject to numerous delays and the airport now has a new opening date. Berlin Brandenburg Airport is now expected to open on Oct. 31, 2020.
Megaproject: Yangshan Port
The Port of Shanghai became one of the most important transportation hubs in the world after the completion of its offshore expansion – the Yangshan Port.
Building this massive port was a gargantuan engineering feat. First, land reclamation was used to connect two islands 20 miles southeast of Shanghai. Next, the port was connected to the mainland via the Donghai Bridge, which opened in 2005 as the world’s longest sea crossing. The six-lane bridge took 6,000 workers two and half years to construct.
In 2016, the Port of Shanghai was the largest shipping port in the world, handling 37.1 million twenty-foot container equivalents.
Mining: Chuquicamata, Chile
Chuquicamata is the largest open pit copper mine by volume in the world, located 800 miles north of the Chilean capital, Santiago. In 2019, Chile’s national mining company Codelco initiated underground mining at Chuquicamata.
Deforestation: Ñuflo de Chávez, Bolivia
Ñuflo de Chávez is one of the 15 provinces of the Bolivian Santa Cruz Department. Satellite images of southern Ñuflo de Chávez illustrate deforestation from agrarian expansion in the jungles of the Amazon. From the air, the deforestation takes on a unique grid pattern with circular clearings. Developed as part of an organized resettlement scheme, each circle is anchored by community amenities and housing, and surrounded by fields of soybeans cultivated for export.
According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, 8.4 million soccer fields of land have been deforested in the Amazon over the past decade.
Shale Gas Boom: Odessa, Texas
The small town of Odessa sits in the middle of one of the most productive shale gas regions in the world, the Permian Basin. The region is expected to generate an average of 3.9 million barrels per day, roughly a third of total U.S. oil production. While the gas may come from underground, the pursuit of this source of energy has drastically altered the landscape, marking the terrain with roads, wells, and housing for workers.
Drying of the Aral Sea: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
It took almost 30 years to make a sea disappear. When the Soviet Union diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate cotton and rice fields in the 1960s, it turned the Aral Sea into a desert. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the region is struggling to restore water levels and aquatic habitats.
Glacier Retreat: Columbia Glacier, Alaska, USA
The Columbia Glacier is a tidewater glacier that flows through the valleys of the Chugach Mountains and into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Increased temperatures initiated a retreat in the length of the glacier over three decades ago. Once in motion, a glacier’s retreat accelerates due to glacial mechanics. It is one of the most rapidly changing glaciers in the world.
Changing Rivers: Iquitos, Peru
Not all change is from humans. There are natural physical processes that continue to shape the Earth’s surface. For example, rivers that experience heavy water flows can be altered through erosion, changing the bends.
Better Perspectives, Better Decisions?
Often, the greatest impacts that occur are out of sight and mind. However, with the increasing availability of satellite technology and improved distribution of images through platforms such as Google Timelapse, the impact of human activity is impossible to ignore.
The bulk of visible changes come from human economic activity, because it is more easily observable on a smaller time scale. However, it’s also worth remembering that there are still many natural processes that take generations, if not thousands of years to affect change.
It is one thing to hear the facts and figures of humankind’s impact on the environment, but to see the change is a whole other story.
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