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.
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.
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.
From Bean to Brew: The Coffee Supply Chain
How does coffee get from a faraway plant to your morning cup? See the great journey of beans through the coffee supply chain.
What Does The Coffee Supply Chain Look Like?
View a more detailed version of the above graphic by clicking here
There’s a good chance your day started with a cappuccino, or a cold brew, and you aren’t alone. In fact, coffee is one of the most consumed drinks on the planet, and it’s also one of the most traded commodities.
According to the National Coffee Association, more than 150 million people drink coffee on a daily basis in the U.S. alone. Globally, consumption is estimated at over 2.25 billion cups per day.
But before it gets to your morning cup, coffee beans travel through a complex global supply chain. Today’s illustration from Dan Zettwoch breaks down this journey into 10 distinct steps.
Coffee From Plant to Factory
There are two types of tropical plants that produce coffee, both preferring high altitudes and with production primarily based in South America, Asia, and Africa.
- Coffea arabica is the more plentiful bean, with a more complex flavor and less caffeine. It’s used in most specialty and “high quality” drinks as Arabica coffee.
- Coffea canephora, meanwhile, has stronger and more bitter flavors. It’s also easier to grow, and is most frequently used in espressos and instant blends as Robusta coffee.
However, both types of beans undergo the same journey:
Plants take anywhere from 4-7 years to produce their first harvest, and grow fruit for around 25 years.
The fruit of the coffea plant is the coffee berry, containing two beans within. Ripened berries are harvested either by hand or machine.
Coffee berries are then processed either in a traditional “dry” method using the sun or “wet” method using water and machinery. This removes the outer fruit encasing the sought-after green beans.
The green coffee beans are hulled, cleaned, sorted, and (optionally) graded.
From Factory to Transport
Once the coffee berry is stripped down to green beans, it’s shipped from producing countries through a global supply network.
Green coffee beans are exported and shipped around the world. In 2018 alone, 7.2 million tonnes of green coffee beans were exported, valued at $19.2 billion.
Arriving primarily in the U.S. and Europe, the beans are now prepared for consumption:
Green beans are industrially roasted, becoming darker, oilier, and tasty. Different temperatures and heat duration impact the final color and flavor, with some preferring light roasts to dark roasts.
Any imperfect or somehow ruined beans are discarded, and the remaining roasted beans are packaged together by type.
Roasted beans are shipped both domestically and internationally. Bulk shipments go to retailers, coffee shops, and in some cases, direct to consumer.
Straight to Your Cup
Roasted coffee beans are almost ready for consumption, and by this stage the remaining steps can happen anywhere.
For example, many factories don’t ship roasted beans until they grind it themselves. Meanwhile, cafes will grind their own beans on-site before preparing drinks. The rapid growth of coffee chains made Starbucks the second-highest-earning U.S. fast food venue.
Regardless of where it happens, the final steps bring coffee straight to your cup:
Roasted beans are ground up in order to better extract their flavors, either by machine or by hand. The preferred fineness depends on the darkness of the roast and the brewing method.
Water is added to the coffee grounds in a variety of methods. Some involve water being passed or pressured through the grounds (espresso, drip) while others mix the water and grounds (French press, Turkish coffee).
Liquid coffee is ready to be enjoyed! One average cup takes 70 roasted beans to make.
The world’s choice of caffeine pick-me-up is made possible by this structured and complex supply chain. Coffee isn’t just a drink, after all, it’s a business.
The Biggest Ammonium Nitrate Explosions Since 2000
Ammonium nitrate is dangerous, and every few years, there’s a new explosion that causes widespread damage. These are some of the biggest ones.
The Biggest Ammonium Nitrate Explosions since 2000
This week, a massive explosion involving ammonium nitrate rocked the city of Beirut, sending shock waves through the media.
This recent tragedy is devastating, and unfortunately, it’s not the first time this dangerous chemical compound has caused widespread damage.
Today’s graphic outlines the biggest accidental ammonium nitrate explosions over the last 20 years.
A Brief Explanation of Ammonium Nitrate
Before getting into the details, first thing’s first—what is ammonium nitrate?
Ammonium nitrate is formed when ammonia gas is combined with liquid nitric acid. The chemical compound is widely used in agriculture as a fertilizer, but it’s also used in mining explosives. It’s highly combustible when combined with oils and other fuels, but not flammable on its own unless exposed to extremely high temperatures.
It’s actually relatively tough for a fire to cause an ammonium nitrate explosion—but that hasn’t stopped it from happening numerous times in the last few decades.
The Death Toll
Some explosions involving ammonium nitrate have been deadlier than others. Here’s a breakdown of the death toll from each blast:
*Note: death count in Beirut as of Aug 6, 2020. Casualty count expected to increase as more information comes available.
One of the deadliest explosions happened in Tianjin, China in 2015. A factory was storing flammable chemicals with ammonium nitrate, and because they weren’t being stored properly, one of the chemicals got too dry and caught fire. The blast killed 165 people and caused $1.1 billion dollars in damage.
In 2001, 14 years before the explosion in Tianjin, a factory exploded in Toulouse, France. The accident killed 30 people and injured 2,500. The power of the blast was equivalent to 20 to 40 tons of TNT, meaning that 40 to 80 tons of ammonium nitrate would have ignited.
In addition to factory explosions, there have been several transportation accidents involving ammonium nitrate. In 2007, a truck in Mexico blew up and killed over 57 people. Filled with explosives, the truck crashed into a pickup, caught fire, and detonated. The blast left a 60-foot long crater in its wake.
While there have been several ammonium nitrate accidents throughout history, the recent tragedy in Beirut is one of the largest accidental explosions ever recorded, with 157 deaths and 5,000 injuries and counting.
In terms of TNT equivalent, a measure used to gauge the impact of an explosion, it ranks in the top 10 of the largest accidental explosions in history:
Topping the list is yet another ammonium nitrate explosion, this time back in 1947.
Known to history as the Texas City Disaster, the port accident was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions to occur in history. The explosion killed over 500 people and injured thousands. The impact from the blast was so intense, it created a 15-foot wave that crashed along the docks and caused flooding in the area.
A Resource With Trade-Offs
Despite being dangerous, ammonium nitrate is still a valuable resource. There’s been an increased demand for the chemical from North America’s agricultural sector, and because of this, ammonium nitrate’s market size is expected to see an increase of more than 3% by 2026.
Because of its increasing market size, it’s more important than ever for trade industries to enforce proper safety measures when storing and transporting ammonium nitrate. When safety regulations aren’t followed, accidents can happen—and as we saw this week, the aftermath can be devastating.
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