Our Human Impact - A Data Story

Heiko Lang

As humans, we make an unavoidable impact on our planet. We use data to discuss these impacts, specifically human population and land degradation.

Our human relationship with our planet has never felt more real than in this Covid era. Seeing and really feeling how we are all connected, and seeing how our Earth was able to heal when our active lives stopped. We walk hand in hand with our Earth, and topics like climate change, global warming and pollution are household names.

But while the human effect on our planet is known, it can be hard to truly comprehend or truly see the effects without geospatial data. Information is always more potent and more understood when visual context is given.

And that’s where we come in!

We believe in changing the way information is used, viewed and understood, and in disseminating complex global data to ensure memorable stories can be told, memorable lessons can be learned, and memorable action can be taken. Join us as we explore some of the human impacts on our planet – from population to land degradation.

Human Species

Our world is a complex, dynamic place, and human species are the same! With huge geographical distances between continents, vastly different climates, diverse cultures and religions; we are just as dynamic as our world. No surprises then that humans historically settled in different areas of the planet. Some areas have therefore become more over populated in time, whilst others have remained somewhat scarcely populated.

Population (and also over-population) doesn’t just affect our way of life, or our need for infrastructure and housing. On a biological level, it can affect our ecosystems, our biophysical landscapes, and put huge pressure on things like water, power and food resources – and in turn, huge pressure on our planet.

Data: Human Species Explosion (HYDE)

We can see here in the data set ‘Historic Population Density’, our human population between 1800 and 2020 when this data was collected. We can see that the darkest areas, like Alaska and our Arctic pole, are still relatively scarcely populated. Versus areas of light blue, green and orange - like South America and central America - where population has grown; and as a result, that pressure on our natural resources has risen to match our human survival.

We can also see here areas of orange and yellow, with the darkest orange being areas of overpopulation. Places like India, China, mainland Europe, the UK and some areas in Africa. Again, we can see that most major continents on Earth have areas of this dark orange, telling us that the pressure of human population on our ecosystems is a problem for the entire planet.

[Data source: HYDE]

Especially considering our population growth has only increased exponentially since 1800, as seen in this visualisation by 'Our World in Data'. ‘This implies that on average the population grew very slowly over this long time from 10,000 BCE to 1700 (by 0.04% annually). After 1800 this changed fundamentally: The world population was around 1 billion in the year 1800 and increased 7-fold since then.’ (Our World in Data)

Land Degradation

Our human impact on the planet can lead to things like Land Degradation: ‘A process in which the value of the biophysical environment is affected by a combination of human-induced processes acting upon the land.[1] It is viewed as any change or disturbance to the land perceived to be deleterious or undesirable.’ (Wikipedia)

This degradation can be caused by various human activities, but the most potent being mining and pollution (population density), urban construction and land conversion (population pressure), agricultural expansion (overgrazing), artificial radioactivity (sometimes accidental), and land-use constraints from war and ongoing conflicts.

While these human impacts are a cause of climate change, of droughts, desertification (sciencedirect), and extreme weather, the reason land degradation is such a topic of rising concern; is due to the pressure this is putting on our agricultural productivity; and the roll-on effect to our food security. As the human impact on biophysical environments reduces soil richness, causes soil erosion, and ultimately can cause famine – it’s important to understand our human impact on our planet.

Data: Land Degradation Severity (ArcGIS)

This data set showcases the effects of land degradation across the planet. With yellow being limited, orange being mild, red being severe, and dark red being so bad it effects human life. We can clearly see most of the world is living in mild or severe land degradation levels. Which means that most of our modern population is living with limited agricultural security, and increasing pressure on our food security and natural resources.

Even isolated countries like New Zealand are showing mild land degradation in the South Island, and severe levels of land degradation along the east coast of the North Island. When we compare that to areas of Indonesia, where deforestation is very active, we can see the dark red signifying the advanced pressure on their biophysical environments.

[Data source: ArcGIS & ESRI]

Geospatial data can tell potent stories of human impacts on our planet. Our world is resilient, just as we are as humans; but our existence is futile and without caring for our planet – we will lose the lives we have developed.

We have the power to change this. We have the ability to reduce our carbon footprints, to reduce our levels of pollution and make a positive impact on our natural environments. So, armed with the knowledge we have; Will you be part of the solution?

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