October 23, 2006 – If a picture is worth a thousand words, digital satellite imagery could inspire tomes’ worth of new environmental policies. At least that’s the hope of the designers behind the ‘Atlas of Our Changing Environment’ ), a unique new Web site that uses a digital map framework to catalog damage inflicted on the Earth over the last few decades.
“It is as simple as seeing is believing,” said Patrick Joseph, an environmental journalist who writes a blog for the nonprofit Sierra Club. “You can read a million times over that the Amazon is being deforested, but satellite imagery really helps give you an idea of the scale on which it is happening.”
The atlas’s visual evidence of destruction is already helping some environmental groups get the word out about their issues. Sierra Club, for instance, has used images from the atlas in its member magazine, Sierra. “Our experience is that people respond very enthusiastically to maps,” Joseph said. “So we try to integrate them into our outreach whenever possible.”
The new site is based on Google Earth. The U.S. branch of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) partnered with Google to create a “layer” of data that users can navigate using Google Earth or view in a Web browser.
“The format is highly effective,” said Ashbindu Singh, the Regional Coordinator for UNEP who oversaw the project. “Anyone looking at the pair of images online will be able to identify the changes.”
One entry shows images of Iguazú National Park—which stretches over Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina—taken in 1973 and in 2003. The dramatic differences between the images illustrate how much rain forest has been lost to farmland and other human uses in a span of 20 years. Another pairing shows the shrinking of Africa’s Lake Chad between 1972 and 2001 due to lack of rainfall and upstream diversion of water by humans.
Once the sixth-largest lake in the world, Lake Chad has shrunk from 8,843 square miles (22,903 square kilometers) in 1963 to less than 117 square miles (303 square kilometers) today. The program also exposes some lesser-known cases, such as the depletion of date palm trees in the Shatt al Arab estuary bordering Iraq and Iran and the fire damage that has charred much of Wyperfeld National Park in southeastern Australia.
“I think it is a great education tool,” said Timothy Boucher, a scientist for the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit the Nature Conservancy. Such visual juxtapositions could raise “public awareness of the changes people are making on this planet.”
UNEP originally presented the compare-and-contrast material in a book and on CD earlier this year. But a flood of additional requests for the information prompted officials to approach Google to develop a way to further disseminate the information, Singh says.