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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 now past eight billion, 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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Ranked: Top 20 Countries by Plastic Waste per Capita

Visualizing plastic waste per capita reveals a surprising list of countries that you may not have expected.

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Ranked: Top 20 Countries by Plastic Waste per Capita

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Single-use plastic waste is perhaps one of the biggest environmental issues of our time. Every year, millions of tons of plastic end up in oceans and landfills, harming wildlife and ecosystems.

To make matters worse, plastics take hundreds of years to decompose, leading to long-term environmental and health hazards as they break down into microplastics that contaminate water and food sources.

In this graphic, we visualized the top 20 countries that generated the most single-use plastic waste per capita in 2019, measured in kilograms per person. Figures come from research published in May 2021, which we sourced from Statista.

Data and Key Takeaways

The data we used to create this graphic is listed in the table below.

RankCountryKg per personPounds per person
1🇸🇬 Singapore76168
2🇦🇺 Australia59130
3🇴🇲 Oman56123
4🇳🇱 Netherlands55121
5🇧🇪 Belgium55121
6🇮🇱 Israel55121
7🇭🇰 Hong Kong55121
8🇨🇭 Switzerland53117
9🇺🇸 U.S.53117
10🇦🇪 UAE52115
11🇨🇱 Chile51112
12🇰🇷 S. Korea4497
13🇬🇧 UK4497
14🇰🇼 Kuwait4088
15🇳🇿 New Zealand3986
16🇮🇪 Ireland3986
17🇫🇮 Finland3884
18🇯🇵 Japan3782
19🇫🇷 France3679
20🇸🇮 Slovenia3577

Countries from all around the world are present in this ranking, highlighting how plastic waste isn’t concentrated in any one region.

It’s also interesting to note how most of the countries in this top 20 ranking are wealthier, more developed nations. These nations have higher levels of consumption, with greater access to packaged goods, take-out services, and disposable products, all of which rely on single-use plastics.

Where’s China and India?

Note that we’ve visualized plastic waste per capita, which is different from the total amount of waste produced by a country. It is for this reason that major polluters, such as China and India, are not present in this ranking.

It’s also worth noting that this focuses on the demand side of plastics, rather than where plastic products were initially created or produced.

If you’re interested to see more visuals on plastic waste, check out Which Countries Pollute the Most Ocean Plastic Waste?.

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