Shocking New Maps Show Mankind's Changing Global Footprint

There's a tiny glimmer of hope in a world of bad news.

25/08/2016 7:11 AM AEST | Updated 26/08/2016 12:16 AM AEST

Human beings have altered the planet so dramatically and extensively, the scars of our ways can easily be seen from space.

Today, three-quarters of earth’s land surface faces “measurable human pressures,” while just 3 percent of the world’s biodiversity hotspots remain unaltered, according to a new global analysis. 

“There’s little wonder why there’s a biodiversity crisis,” James Watson, a study co-author and director of science and research initiatives at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told The Huffington Post.

From deforestation and hunting to urban development and pollution, the future often seems depressingly bleak.The study describes human pressures as “perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” While it provides another dose of reality, it also provides a glimmer of hope.

Surprisingly, researchers found that between 1993 and 2009, the human footprint on the environment grew at a slower rate than both the global population and economy.

“You wouldn’t expect that,” Watson told HuffPost. Still, he said, he hesitates to call the findings “good news.”

Nature Communications
This map shows how the human footprint changed -- positively and negatively -- between 1993 to 2009.
Nature Communications
This map shows the impact of human beings on the Earth's land surface. Shades of blue indicate wilder areas, while shades of red and orange are areas that face the most pressure from humans. 

For their groundbreaking study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communicationsa dozen researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia, the University of Queensland, WCS and six other universities combed through satellite imagery, as well as infrastructure, land cover and other data. The result is a pair of high-resolution, comprehensive maps that allow users to explore how the global impact of human activities changed between 1993 to 2009. 

During that 16-year period, the population increased 23 percent and the world economy grew 153 percent, according to the findings. The human footprint, however, expanded by just 9 percent.

It’s the latter percentage that has left scientists feeling encouraged. 

Lead author Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Columbia said in a statement that the slow growth shows “we are becoming more efficient in how we use natural resources.”

Also unexpected and promising, the scientists write, is that some countries, namely ones that are wealthy and uncorrupt, have undergone rapid economic growth while still managing to reduce their footprint, including effects on land and infrastructure.

Watson told HuffPost more must be done to explore why certain countries are doing better than others. The research team has made public both the maps and data, and Watson said he hopes other, “smarter” people will be inspired to dig into the findings. 

“The way we’re going to solve the world’s problems is by sharing science,” he said. 

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Municipal workers collect garbage as they clean a beach in Mumbai, India, on Aug. 14, 2016.

The new study comes on the heels of an analysis of threatened wildlife, which Watson also co-authored, showing that the biggest threat to biodiversity is not climate change, which gets a lot of attention, but age-old human activities, including logging, hunting and farming. It also comes just one week before the International Union for Conservation of Nature kicks off its World Conservation Congress in Honolulu. The congress, held every four years, is the world’s largest environmental and nature conservation event

Venter said sustainable development is a widely adopted goal, and his team’s findings demonstrate a clear path for how the world can get there. 

“Concentrate people in towns and cities so their housing and infrastructure needs are not spread across the wider landscape, and promote honest governments that are capable of managing environmental impacts,” he said in a statement.

Acknowledging that a slowing human footprint can be taken as a good sign, Watson said it’s important we not to lose sight of the severity of the situation.

“We’re running out of space and time,” he told HuffPost, adding that the remaining 25 percent of the planet that hasn’t been significantly altered “must become a conservation priority.” 

“We’ve got to realize that we are eroding the last significant, intact places on Earth,” he said

View the interactive maps here.

Also on HuffPost
Most Threatened Species

More On This Topic