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.
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.
Visualizing Population Density Patterns in Six Countries
These maps show the population density of several countries, using 3D spikes to denote where more people live.
As of 2022, Earth has 8 billion humans. By 2050, the population is projected to grow to 10 billion.
In the last 100 years, the global population more than quadrupled. But none of this growth has been evenly spread out, including within countries.
This series of 3D maps from Terence Teo, an associate professor at Seton Hall University, renders the population density of six countries using open-source data from Kontur Population. He used popular programming language R and a path-tracing package, Rayshader, to create the maps.
France and Germany: Population Density Spikes and Troughs
Let’s take a look at how the population spreads out in different countries around the world. Click the images to explore higher-resolution versions.
France is the world’s 7th largest economy and second-most-populous country in the EU with 65 million people. But a staggering one-fifth of the French population lives in Paris and its surrounding metro—the most populous urban area in Europe.
Many residents in the Paris metropolitan area are employed in the service sector, which makes up one-third of France’s $2.78 trillion gross domestic product.
Unlike France, Germany has many dense cities and regions, with Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, and Cologne all having over a million residents. Berlin is the most populated at 3.5 million residents in the city proper, and 6 million in the wider urban area.
That said, the relatively recent reunification of West and East Germany in 1991 meant that post-WWII growth was mostly concentrated in West Germany (and West Berlin).
Italy and Chile: Coast to Coast
In Italy, another phenomenon affects population density and urban development—a sprawling coastline.
Despite having a large population of 59 million and large metropolitan areas throughout, Italy’s population spikes are closer to the water.
The port cities of Genoa, Napoli, and Palermo all have large spikes relative to the rest of the country, as does the capital, Rome. Despite its city center located 15 miles inland from the sea, it extends to the shore through the district of Ostia, where the ancient port of Rome existed.
Meanwhile in Chile, stuck between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, population spikes corroborate with its many port towns and cities.
However, the country is more concentrated than Italy, with 40% of its residents congregating around the capital of Santiago.
Turkey and Canada: Marred by Mountains and Climes
Though Chile has difficulties with terrain, it is relatively consistent. Other countries have to attempt to settle many different climes—regions defined by their climates.
Mountains to the south and east, a large, semi-arid plateau, and even a small desert leave few centers of urban growth in Türkiye.
Predictably, further west, as the elevation comes down to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, population spikes begin to heighten. The largest of course is the economic and cultural hub of Istanbul, though the capital Ankara is also prominent with more than 5 million residents.
In Canada, the Rocky Mountains to the west and freezing cold temperatures in the center and north account for the large country’s relative emptiness.
Though population spikes in Western Canada are growing rapidly, highly populous urban centers are noticeably concentrated along the St. Lawrence River, with the Greater Toronto Area accounting for more than one-sixth of the country’s 39 million people.
According to the World Bank, more than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and that trend is only growing.
By 2050, 7 out of 10 people are projected to live in cities. This congregation makes cities a beehive of productivity and innovation—with more than 80% of the world’s GDP being generated at these population centers.
It’s in this context that mapping and studying urban development becomes all the more important, particularly as policymakers try their hand at sustainable urban planning.
As Teo puts it:
“By showing where people are (and are not), they show us where political and economic power is concentrated, and perhaps where and who our governments represent.”
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