Thursday, 3 January 2013


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See how humans changed the face of the Earth in 2012.

The Changing Face of Earth in 2012: Photos
By Tim Wall,
Discovery News, 29 December 2012.

From drained lakes to restored landfills, see how changes affected the face of the Earth during the past year.

1. Black Marble

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Composite map of the world assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April
and October 2012.

Industrialized human cultures have existed for far less time than the giant redwood trees. Yet in the few centuries that our modern engineering projects have been spreading across Earth, they have altered the face of the planet like no other species before.

This past year NASA released a new set of images, known as the Black Marble, showing the planet at night. The incandescent spider webs of industrialized human habitation can be seen in stark contrast to the remaining expanses of darkness in some regions like Siberia and the Congo.

Other images taken from on high also show the astounding ability of humans to modify their habitats in ways that no other species could never achieve.

2. Three Gorges Dam

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The reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam filling with water. The Yangtze river as it appeared
in 1984 is shown in the inset.

The Three Gorges Dam in China reached its full electrical generating capacity in July 2012, after flooding topped off the reservoir. The dam's 32 generators can produce 22.5 million kilowatts (22,500 megawatts) of electricity.

One of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken and the biggest dam on Earth, the Three Gorges dam has tamed the Yangtze River and created a 600-kilometre (372-mile)-long reservoir.

Flooding of the Yangtze has killed hundreds of thousands during China's long history. The dam was meant to control flooding and protect the 13 million people who now live in the river's floodplain, as well as power the world's largest hydroelectric power plant.

However in the process of stopping flooding, 13 cities and more than 1,000 villages were submerged. Approximately 1.2 million people had to be relocated.

Another concern is that the tremendous weight of the reservoir's water may influence seismic activity in the region. A quake shook the area in November, 2012. The Chinese government began a seismic activity monitoring system for the Three Gorges Region in 2005. The construction of the Zipingu Dam may have helped trigger the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Wenchuan, China, in 2008, killing 80,000 thousand people, according to evidence published in Science in April 2012.

3. Mountaintop Removal, 1984

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Hobet mine in Boone County, West Virginia in 1984.

At the end of 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency's head, Lisa Jackson, stepped down. During her tenure, she sought to increase EPA oversight and management of the controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal in the Appalachians. U.S. district courts rejected EPA efforts in 2009 and '10, but appeals are currently working their way through the courts.

Mountaintop removal involves exactly what its name implies. The peak of a mountain is physically removed to allow easy access to the coal underneath. Removing entire chunks of a region's geography alters wildlife habitats and human hunting grounds, as well as frequently polluting waterways with runoff.

4. Mountaintop Removal, 2012

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Hobet mine in Boone County, West Virginia in 2012.

By 2012, the area affected by the Hobet mine had expanded to 10,000 acres (15.6 square miles). The rubble from the destroyed mountain peaks has been shovelled into nearby valleys, resulting in a flatter landscape. Mining companies are required to restore the original form of the mountain, but the rubble can't be piled as high or as steep as the original rock.

Nonetheless, in the 2012 image, signs of life can be seen creeping onto the areas that were a wasteland in the late 1990s. The year by year series of images was featured in NASA's World of Change website [see here]

5. Freshkills Park

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An aerial view of the former Fresh Kills landfill.

Just as a ravaged mountaintop can show signs of new life, a former garbage dump can become a verdant park.

New York City is in the process of transforming what was once the world's largest landfill into a park nearly three times the size of Central Park. Opened in 1948, Fresh Kills landfill once received thousands of tons of garbage every day. The landfill was shut down in 2001. Over the next 30 years the site will be gradually rehabilitated into a 2,200 acre park, named Freshkills.

The name "Fresh Kills" was given to the land by Dutch colonists. "Kill" means stream in Old Dutch, according to the City of New York Parks and Recreation website. The area was once a wetland. That ecosystem disappeared when the landfill was active. The landfill supported a vigorous refuse based ecosystem. Rats and mice fed on garbage, while seagulls and crows swooped in to take their own share.

As of 2012, the capped landfill is already returning to forest, wetland and meadow. Wildlife spotted at the Fresh Kills site includes red-tailed hawks, snapping turtles, white-tailed deer, great blue herons and muskrats.

6. Overseas Highway

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U.S. Route 1, Florida Keys (image source).

In the Black Marble image, a glowing string of pearls could be seen hanging from the tip of Florida. That string is the Overseas Highway, which links the United States mainland to Key West. The 127-mile-long stretch of road connects the islands of the Florida Keys.

The highway started as a railroad in 1912. The railroad was meant to allow easy access to the deep water port at Key West and thereby facilitate shipping via the Panama Canal, which was set to open in 1914. More than 4,000 workers toiled for seven years and endured three hurricanes to complete the project.

Another hurricane in 1935 damaged the railroad beyond the owners' financial ability to repair it. The State of Florida bought the damaged railroad and constructed a roadway using many of the original bridges. The Overseas Highway, now designated U.S. Route 1, was born.

The highway has since carried millions of visitors out into the Caribbean. Most of them were on four or two wheels, but recently a daring duo rode unicycles along the highway on a six-day, single-wheeled journey. Brooklyn residents Robert Hickman and Keith Nelson rode 106 miles to Key West as part of a performance art project in mid-December.

7. Palm Islands, Dubai

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Artificial archipelagos, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

A famous example of what tremendous wealth can achieve in the name of luxury, the artificial archipelago of Dubai was made out of sand dredged from the Persian Gulf.

The main palm tree-shaped island, named Palm Jumeirah,  is five kilometres wide and stretches five kilometres out to sea. The 16 fronds of the palm island are packed tight with opulent dwellings and resorts.

Plans to expand the artificial island system slowed during the Great Recession. A set of islands shaped like the Earth in miniature was constructed, but hard times have resulted in only a few building projects actually being constructed on the islands.

The islands are located near another engineering marvel, the Burj Kalifa tower. The tower is the tallest structure on Earth, peaking at 829.8 meters (2,722 feet). The construction of the tower returned the honour of the "world's tallest structure" to the Middle East.

The Great Pyramid in Egypt held that title for thousands of years until the construction of Lincoln Cathedral in England in 1311. The financial crisis hit the tower as well. Oil-rich neighbouring nations had to bail out construction indebted Dubai. Occupancy in the tower was low and rents dropped dramatically. However by October 2012 approximately 80 percent of the tower was occupied.

8. Amazon Deforestation, 2000

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The Amazon forest in Rondonia, Brazil in 2000.

The rate of deforestation in the Amazon was at a record low during the 2011-2012 season, measured from August to July, according to an early estimate by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research. Deforestation may have dropped by 23 percent to 6,238 square kilometres (2,408 miles). However the organization's website cautions against putting too much stock in the estimates, which are made using satellite images.

A later estimation by the Brazilian agency suggested a spike in clear cutting. Economic recovery from the global financial crisis that started in 2007 has resulted in rising prices for commodities like soybeans and beef. At the same time, proposed changes to Brazil's forest code may have emboldened loggers, farmers and others seeking to profit from clearing the Amazon.

In 2012, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff line item vetoed 12 of the controversial articles of the revised code that would have granted amnesty to illegal loggers, eliminated reforestation requirements and reduced the amount of forest buffer around water sources.

The Brazilian Amazon, which makes up roughly 60 percent of the total forest, has been facing decades of threats. NASA's Earth Observatory documented the spread of denuded land in the western Brazilian state of Rondonia. The image shown here is from 2000 and shows significant deforestation spreading from the city of Buritis towards the Jaciparan√° River.

9. Amazon Deforestation, 2010

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The progression of forest clearing from 2000 to 2010 followed the standard pattern, first clearings appear along major roads, then spread in a fishbone pattern.

Eventually the ribs of the fishbone meet and create blobs of brown, bare dirt and light green splotches of crops and pasture. The spread is fuelled by incessant need of farmers for fresh land, since the poor soil of the Amazon gives out after only a few years. The degraded farms are then sold off as cattle pasture, and new land is cleared.

This image from 2010 shows how in just a decade the forest can be converted. The year by year series of images was featured in NASA's World of Change website [see here].

10. Aral Sea, 2000

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The Aral Sea in 2000.

Another ecosystem given a death sentence by poor long-term agricultural planning was the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea dried up because the Soviet Union undertook massive irrigation projects in the 1960s to water the plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The two major rivers feeding the Aral Sea were sucked nearly dry by the project.

By 2000, much of the Aral Sea had evaporated. The lost of the lake collapsed the region's fishing economy. The salty, fertilizer and pesticide contaminated dust from the dried out lake began blowing into the air locals breathed and causing respiratory diseases. The dust also polluted farms and necessitated the use of even more water to flush the fields. The local climate also become more variable with hotter summers and colder winters.

This NASA image from 2000 shows the former borders of the lake from the 1950s.

11. Aral Sea, 2012

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The Aral Sea in 2012.

Once the world's fourth largest lake, by 2012 the larger southern portion had shrivelled to a sliver. A dam built by Kazakhstan in 2005 diverted all of the diminished rivers' waters into the northern section. Although this saved one section of the lake, it was a death sentence for the southern portion.

This NASA image is from 2012. The year by year desiccation of the lake is another of the series of images featured in the World of Change website [see here].

Top image: Amazon Deforestation in 2000 (left) and 2010 (right). Source: NASA.

[Source: Discovery News. Edited. Some links added.]

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