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Timelapse Maps: An Overview of Our Changing Planet

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The dramatic growth of Dubai, UAE (1984–2018)

timelapse map

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.

Resource Extraction

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.

Changing Environment

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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Economy

The Impact of International Students on the U.S. Economy

The U.S. has benefited from being the top destination for the world’s international students, but new enrollments have begun to show signs of weakness.

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The Economic Impact of America’s International Students

For decades, the U.S. has been the top destination for students looking to study abroad.

It’s easy to see why. Not only does the country provide access to world-class economic hubs like Silicon Valley, but the U.S. is also home to 14 of the top 20 universities in the world, many of which are famed for their research and alumni networks.

Yet, there is cause for concern.

International enrollments in the U.S. have slowed, while other countries are attracting a larger share of the global talent pool. To help us understand what’s at stake if enrollments continue to decline, today’s infographic shows the impact of international students on the U.S. economy.

Driving American Innovation and Growth

International students and scholars are a vital economic asset, and America’s ability to attract them puts the country in an enviable position.

First, there are the direct economic benefits which result from tuition fees and living expenses. Throughout the 2018/2019 school year, these benefits totaled $41 billion, a comparable value to many other American exports:

ExportValue (2018)
Automobiles$158B
Commercial Aircraft$131B
Pharmaceuticals$51B
Education Exports$41B
Telecommunications Equipment$36B
Soybeans$17B

Source: NAFSA, Evans, WorldCity

Even after graduation, however, international students and scholars continue to make significant contributions to the U.S. economy.

For example, attracting the world’s brightest minds helps to grow the knowledge economy in the United States, and 40% of American Nobel Prizes won in chemistry, medicine, and physics since 2000 have been awarded to immigrants. Furthermore, students who return home often do so with a network of connections and an appreciation for American culture, thus promoting U.S. international leadership.

Finally, these individuals can also go on to become successful entrepreneurs and business leaders in the U.S. economy. The list is long, but here are two noteworthy examples:

  • Elon Musk, known for founding Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX, was born in South Africa. He received two Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania before founding his first business.
  • Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, was an international student from India. He received an M.S. from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the University of Chicago before helping Microsoft develop its cloud computing capabilities.

Cause for Concern

In recent years, however, the number of new international students enrolling at U.S. institutions has been on the decline:

School YearNew International Student Enrollments in the U.S.Percent Change 
2013/14270,128--
2014/15293,7668.8%
2015/16300,7432.4%
2016/17290,836-3.3%
2017/18271,738-6.6%
2018/19269,383-0.9%

Source: Institute of International Education

With so many opportunities and success stories, why have international enrollments slowed? A survey of 509 higher education institutions in the U.S. revealed the top reasons for declining international enrollments:

Cited Reason for Decline in Enrollment% of Institutions
(Fall 2016)
% of Institutions
(Fall 2017)
% of Institutions
(Fall 2018)
Visa Application Process (delays/denials)34%68%83%
Social and Political Environment15%57%60%
Enroll in Another Country’s Institutions19%54%59%
Cost of Tuition51%55%57%
Feeling Unwelcome-49%50%
Securing a Job41%44%
Physical Safety12%33%44%

Source: NAFSA

Critically, the two most common reasons for declining enrollment—visa applications and the social and political environment—suggest that the quality of an American education is not the issue. Rather, it would appear that students are being discouraged from coming to the United States.

When we discourage or turn away international students, we lose much more than the students themselves… We lose their inventions and innovation, their collaborative input and their contributions to our communities.

– Dr. Martha E. Pollack, President, Cornell University

At the same time, other countries are taking proactive measures to attract global talent.

Australia

Australia allows its international students to work for up to 18 months after graduation. This limit can increase to 4 years for graduates of high-demand occupations. In 2018, the country saw a 15% increase in international enrollments.

Canada

Canada, a country distinguished for its multiculturalism, is quickly becoming an attractive destination for international students. The country offers expedited visa processing for qualified individuals, as well as a 3-year work visa for graduates. In 2017, international enrollments in Canada grew by an impressive 20%.

Potential Consequences

The world’s brightest minds are an important asset for continued innovation and growth, and today, there is a mass of countries welcoming them with open arms.

While the U.S. is still the preferred destination for international students and scholars, the country’s leadership in this space is at risk. In fact, since 2001, the share of international students in America has fallen from 28% to 21%.

Will the U.S be able to maintain global competitiveness if the number of new international students enrolling continues to fall? Can the country work to cultivate a more welcoming and barrier-free route to higher education?

These are potent questions that will need to be answered, especially with a sizable economic impact on the line.

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Business

Flying High: The Top Ten Airline Routes by Revenue

This visualization tracks the high-value routes that generate the most revenue for airlines – primarily links between the world’s financial centers

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Flying High: The Top 10 Airline Routes by Revenue

The airline industry is a tough business. Profit margins are narrow, airplanes are expensive to run and maintain, and government regulation and taxation can be onerous and unpredictable.

In addition, demand can stall by the outbreak of disease, recession, war, or terrorism. So when a company has a winning airline route, it makes all the difference to a company’s bottom line.

Today’s visualization uses data from OAG Aviation Worldwide, which tracked the airline routes that generated the most revenue from April 2018 to March 2019.

Top 10 Highest Revenue Routes by Airline

North American routes dominate the global rankings. However, it is the connections from the U.S Northeast and Europe that generate the most revenue and often the most delays.

Only one route breaks the billion dollar barrier: British Airways’ service between London Heathrow Airport (LHR) and New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK).

AirlineAirport PairCountriesTotal Revenue US$ 2018/19
British AirwaysJFK-LHR🇺🇸🇬🇧$1,159,126,794
Qantas AirlinesMEL-SYD🇦🇺$849,260,322
EmiratesLHR-DXB🇬🇧🇦🇪$796,201,645
Singapore AirlinesLHR-SIN🇬🇧🇸🇬$735,597,614
United AirlinesSFO-EWR🇺🇸$689,371,368
American AirlinesLAX-JFK🇺🇸$661,739,368
Qatar AirwaysLHR-DOH🇬🇧🇶🇦$639,122,609
Cathay Pacific AirwaysHKG-LHR🇭🇰🇬🇧$604,595,063
Singapore AirlinesSYD-SIN🇦🇺🇸🇬$549,711,946
Air CanadaYVR-YYZ🇨🇦$541,122,509

Air Canada’s route between Vancouver and Toronto bottoms out the list with $541 million of revenue in 2019. Low population density, high infrastructure costs, and an aviation industry that is essentially an oligopoly, are all factors driving up ticket costs in Canada.

North America, Top 10 Highest Revenue Routes by Airline

Here’s a look at only the top-grossing routes connected to North America, including the prior ones that made the global list.

AirlineAirport PairCountriesTotal Revenue US$ 2018/19
British AirwaysJFK-LHR🇺🇸🇬🇧$1,159,126,794
United AirlinesSFO-EWR🇺🇸$689,371,368
American AirlinesLAX-JFK🇺🇸$661,739,788
Air CanadaYVR-YYZ🇨🇦$541,122,509
British AirwaysBOS-LHR🇺🇸🇬🇧$523,527,241
Air FranceJFK-CDG🇺🇸🇫🇷$486,378,698
United AirlinesLAX-EWR🇺🇸$479,908,312
Cathay Pacific AirwaysJFK-HKG🇺🇸🇭🇰$475,514,451
Delta Air LinesLAX-JFK🇺🇸$465,130,366
British AirwaysLAX-LHR🇺🇸🇬🇧$452,136,502

Transcontinental routes dominate the domestic market with LAX–JFK appearing twice in the ranking for both American and Delta Air Lines.

Asia, Top 10 Highest Revenue Routes by Airline

Despite Asia’s rise as an economic superpower, there are no routes that break the billion dollar barrier. Singapore Airlines’ Singapore (SIN) to London’s Heathrow (LHR) tops the list, generating $736 million in 2019.

AirlineAirport PairCountriesTotal Revenue US$ 2018/19
Singapore AirlinesSIN-LHR🇸🇬🇬🇧$735,597,614
Cathay Pacific AirlinesHKG-LHR🇭🇰🇬🇧$604,595,063
Singapore AirlinesSIN-SYD🇸🇬🇦🇺$549,711,946
Vietnam AirlinesSGN-HAN🇻🇳$488,487,259
Cathay Pacific AirlinesHKG-JFK🇭🇰🇺🇸$475,514,451
Japan AirlinesOKA-HND🇯🇵$447,224,346
Singapore AirlinesCGK-SIN🇮🇩🇸🇬$436,905,694
Japan AirlinesFUK-HND🇯🇵$431,457,469
Singapore AirlinesSIN-MEL🇸🇬🇦🇺$414,276,407
Cathay Pacific AirlinesHKG-SIN🇭🇰🇸🇬$389,910,239

The routes that dominate Asia connect the financial hubs of London, New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong. There are also two domestic routes in Japan, connecting both Fukuoka (FUK) and Okinawa (OKA) to Tokyo’s Haneda (HND) airport.

Africa, Top 10 Highest Revenue Routes by Airline

At the top of the ranking in Africa is Johannesburg (JNB) to Dubai International Airport (DXB) with revenues of $315 million. Dubai has become an important hub for high value flights arriving and departing Africa, a position that may prove profitable as air traffic on the continent increases in coming years.

AirlineAirport PairCountriesTotal Revenue US$ 2018/19
EmiratesJNB-DXB🇿🇦🇦🇪$315,678,326
British AirwaysJNB-LHR🇿🇦🇬🇧$295,167,492
Saudi Arabian AirlinesCAI-JED🇪🇬🇸🇦$242,155,949
TAAG Angola AirlinesLAD-LIS🇦🇴🇵🇹$231,155,949
South African AirlinesJNB-CPT🇿🇦$184,944,128
EmiratesCAI-DXB🇪🇬🇦🇪$181,392,011
EmiratesCPT-DXB🇿🇦🇦🇪$176,743,498
Air FranceABJ-CDG🇨🇮🇫🇷$174,986,272
British AirwaysCPT-LHR🇿🇦🇬🇧$174,605,201
EmiratesMRU-DXB🇲🇺🇦🇪$163,952,609

Despite the smaller earnings compared to larger markets, some airline companies see the potential for growth in Africa. Virgin Atlantic will fly a route between London’s Heathrow and Cape Town in South Africa, while Qatar Airlines acquired a stake in RwandAir.

Financial Hubs

The cities that appear in the top revenue ranking are revealing. Since business and first class travelers are such an important revenue driver, it makes sense that connections between the world’s financial hubs are delivering big value to airlines.

As Asian and African economies continue to evolve, what route could be the next billion dollar route for airlines?

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