Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth's Surface
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Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

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mapping human impact on earths surface

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Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

With human population on Earth approaching 8 billion (we’ll hit that milestone in November 2022), our impact on the planet is becoming harder to ignore with each passing year.

Our cities, infrastructure, agriculture, and pollution are all forms of stress we place on the natural world. This map, by David M. Theobald et al., shows just how much of the planet we’ve now modified. The researchers estimate that 14.6% or 18.5 million km² of land area has been modified – an area greater than Russia.

Defining Human Impact

Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, and researchers took a nuanced approach to classifying the “modifications” we’ve made. In the end, 10 main stressors were used to create this map:

  1. Built-Up Areas: All of our cities and towns
  2. Agriculture: Areas devoted to crops and pastures
  3. Energy and extractive resources: Primarily locations where oil and gas are extracted
  4. Mines and quarries: Other ground-based natural resource extraction, excluding oil and gas
  5. Power plants: Areas where energy is produced – both renewable and non-renewable
  6. Transportation and service corridors: Primarily roads and railways
  7. Logging: This measures commodity-based forest loss (excludes factors like wildfire and urbanization)
  8. Human intrusion: Typically areas adjacent to population centers and roads that humans access
  9. Natural systems modification: Primarily modifications to water flow, including reservoir creation
  10. Pollution: Phenomenon such as acid rain and fog caused by air pollution

The classification descriptions above are simplified. See the methodology for full descriptions and calculations.

A Closer Look at Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

To help better understand the level of impact humans can have on the planet, we’ll take a closer look three regions, and see how the situation on the ground relates to these maps.

Land Use Contrasts: Egypt

Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta, making it an interesting place to examine land use and human impact.

egypt land use impact zone

The towns and high intensity agricultural land following the river stand out clearly on the human modification map, while the nearby desert shows much less impact.

Intensive Modification: Netherlands

The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth, so the way it looks on this map will come as no surprise.

netherlands land use impact zone

The area shown above, Rotterdam’s distinctive port and surround area, renders almost entirely in colors at the top of the human modification scale.

Resource Extraction: West Virginia

It isn’t just cities and towns that show up clearly on this map, it’s also the areas we extract our raw materials from as well. This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example.

west virginia land use impact zone

The mountaintop removal method of mining—which involves blasting mountains in order to retrieve seams of bituminous coal—is common in this region, and mine sites show up clearly in the map.

You can explore the interactive version of this map yourself to view any area on the globe. What surprises you about these patterns of human impact?

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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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