7 Striking Maps that Visualize the Human Footprint
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7 Striking Maps that Visualize the Human Footprint

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human footprint maps

7 Striking Maps that Visualize the Human Footprint

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

In a short amount of time, humans have changed the face of planet Earth.

Our impact has been so profound, in fact, that scientists have declared the dawn of the Anthropocene epoch, or the age of human influence.

Today’s ambitious graphic comes to us from Reldresal, and it looks at this human footprint from a number of different angles. Here are some of the ones we found most interesting.

Population Density

While there are humans present in nearly every part of the world, the overall distribution of population is far from even. As the map above vividly demonstrates, humans cluster in specific places that have the right conditions to support a large population. Massive river deltas such as Ganges-Brahmaputra (Bangladesh) and the Nile (Egypt) are obvious bright spots on the map.

Not surprisingly, sparsely populated countries like Australia and Canada are nearly indistinguishable as most people cluster in more habitable places.

People and Products in Perpetual Motion

The band of industrialized countries running across the northern hemisphere is highlighted by a bright cluster of shipping and air traffic routes.

When visualized, it’s easy to see how the global flow of people and goods plugs into specific hubs. At the same time, other continents such as South America and Africa have very little connectivity in comparison.

Under the Sea

Since the first undersea cable dipped below the icy Atlantic waves in the mid-1800s, people have been instantaneously transmitting information across oceans. Fiber optic cables form the backbone of the internet, transmitting about 99% of all data.

Without the 400+ submarine cables in service today, our ability to transmit data would be severely restricted.

End of the Road

Paved roads have made some of the most remote swaths of land accessible by vehicle, but there are a few places on Earth that remain poorly connected due to difficult terrain.

The most dramatic example – one of the most obvious “holes” on the road network map – is the Sahara desert. The desert is so inhospitable that building a reliable, fully-paved highway has proved impossible up until this point. For this reason, economic data on Africa is often divided between North and Sub-Saharan.

There is a similar situation in the Amazon, where the Trans-Amazonian highway is the one lonely route connecting the interior of the rainforest. Brazil has rapidly expanded the footprint of their road network in recent years in an effort to open up economic opportunities in the interior of the continent.

For better or worse, this map could look a lot different in future years.

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Demographics

Population Boom: Charting How We Got to Nearly 8 Billion People

In the next year or so, humanity is expected to pass the 8 billion person milestone. These charts and maps put global population growth into context.

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Today, the global population is estimated to sit at 7.91 billion people.

By the end of 2022 or within the first months of 2023, that number is expected to officially cross the 8 billion mark. Incredibly, each new billion people has come faster than the previous—it was roughly only a decade ago that we crossed the 7 billion threshold.

How did we get here, and what has global population growth looked like historically?

In this series of six charts from Our World in Data, we’ll break down how the global population got to its current point, as well as some big picture trends behind the data.

#1: Mapping the Population Over 5,000 Years

New York, São Paulo, and Jakarta were not always bustling metropolises. In fact, for long parts of the history of civilization, it was unusual to find humans congregating in many of the present-day city locations we now think of as population centers.

The human population has always moved around, seeking out new opportunity and freedoms.

5,000 years of population movement

As of 3,000 BC, humans could be mainly found in Central America, the Mediterranean, the Fertile Crescent, and parts of India, Japan, and China. It’s no coincidence that that agriculture was independently discovered in many of these same places during the Neolithic Revolution.

#2: The Hockey Stick Curve

For even more context, let’s zoom way out by using a timeline that goes back to when woolly mammoths still roamed the Earth:

Annual World Population since 10,000 BC

From this 10,000-foot view, it’s clear that human population growth started going exponential around the time of the Second Agricultural Revolution, which started in the 17th century in Britain. This is when new technologies and farming conventions took root, making it possible to grow the food supply at an unprecedented pace.

Soon these discoveries spread around the world, enabling population booms everywhere.

#3: The Time to Add 1 Billion

The data and projections in this chart are a few years old, but the concept remains the same:

Time to Add 1 Billion in Population

It took all of human history until 1803 to reach the first billion in population. The next billion took 124 years, and the next 33 years. More recent billions have come every dozen or so.

So why then, are future billion people additions projected to take longer and longer to achieve?

#4: The Growth Rate is Shrinking

Because of demographics and falling fertility rates, the growth rate of the global population has actually been on a downward trend for some time.

Falling Population Growth Rate

As this growth rate gets closer to zero, the population curve has become less exponential like we saw in the first graphs. Population growth is leveling out, and it may even go negative at some point in the future.

#5: The Regional Breakdown

Although the rate of population growth is expected to slow down, there are still parts of the world that are adding new people fast, as you can see on this interactive regional breakdown:

Since 1973, Asia has doubled its population from 2.3 billion to 4.6 billion people.

Comparatively, over the same time frame, Europe has gone from 670 million to 748 million, equal to just an 11% increase.

#6: The Present and Future of Population Growth

Population projections by groups like the United Nations see the global population peaking at around 10.9 billion people in 2100.

World Population 1700 to 2100

That said, there isn’t a consensus around this peak.

Organizations like the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) have a different perspective, and they have recently modeled that the global population will top out at 9.7 billion people by the year 2064.

As we climb to surpass the 8 billion mark in the coming months, it will be interesting to see what path humanity ends up following.

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Green

Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth

The amount of human-made (or anthropogenic) mass, has now exceeded the weight of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, and plants.

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Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth

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The world is not getting any bigger but the human population continues to grow, consuming more and more resources and altering the very environment we rely on.

In 2020, the amount of human-made mass, or anthropogenic mass, exceeded for the first time the dry weight (except for water and fluids) of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms.

In this infographic based on a study published in Nature, we break down the composition of all human-made materials and the rate of their production.

A Man-made Planet

Anthropogenic mass is defined as the mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans that have not been demolished or taken out of service—which is separately defined as anthropogenic mass waste.

Over the past century or so, human-made mass has increased rapidly, doubling approximately every 20 years. The collective mass of these materials has gone from 3% of the world’s biomass in 1900 to being on par with it today.

While we often overlook the presence of raw materials, they are what make the modern economy possible. To build roads, houses, buildings, printer paper, coffee mugs, computers, and all other human-made things, it requires billions of tons of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, wood, and agricultural products.

Human-Made Mass

Every year, we extract almost 90 billion tons of raw materials from the Earth. A single smartphone, for example, can carry roughly 80% of the stable elements on the periodic table.

The rate of accumulation for anthropogenic mass has now reached 30 gigatons (Gt)—equivalent to 30 billion metric tons—per year, based on the average for the past five years. This corresponds to each person on the globe producing more than his or her body weight in anthropogenic mass every week.

At the top of the list is concrete. Used for building and infrastructure, concrete is the second most used substance in the world, after water.

Human-Made MassDescription1900 (mass/Gt)1940 (mass/Gt)1980 (mass/Gt)2020 (mass/Gt)
ConcreteUsed for building and infrastructure, including cement, gravel and sand21086549
AggregatesGravel and sand, mainly used as bedding for roads and buildings1730135386
BricksMostly composed of clay and used for constructions11162892
AsphaltBitumen, gravel and sand, used mainly for road construction/pavement 012265
MetalsMostly iron/steel, aluminum and copper131339
OtherSolid wood products, paper/paperboard, container and flat glass and plastic461123

Bricks and aggregates like gravel and sand also represent a big part of human-made mass.

Although small compared to other materials in our list, the mass of plastic we’ve made is greater than the overall mass of all terrestrial and marine animals combined.

Human-Made Mass Plastic

As the rate of growth of human-made mass continues to accelerate, it could become triple the total amount of global living biomass by 2040.

Can We Work It Out?

While the mass of humans is only about 0.01% of all biomass, our impact is like no other form of life on Earth. We are one of the few species that can alter the environment to the point of affecting all life.

At the current pace, the reserves of some materials like fossil fuels and minerals could run out in less than 100 years. As a result, prospectors are widening their search as they seek fresh sources of raw materials, exploring places like the Arctic, the deep sea, and even asteroids.

As the world population continues to increase, so does the pressure on the natural environment. It is an unavoidable fact that consumption will increase, but in an era of net-zero policies and carbon credits, accounting for the human impact on the environment will be more important than ever.

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