Earlier this year, the New Yorker published a profile of Molly Burhans. Burhans is the founder of GoodLands, a Catholic organization focusing on mobilizing the land and resources of the Church to address climate change and other environmental issues. Burhans, whose background is in GIS, began by wanting to analyse the Church’s property holdings; she soon found out that the Church’s own record-keeping was somewhere between out of date and nonexistent—and certainly not digital.
In the Office of the Secretariat of State that day, Burhans met with two priests. She showed them the prototype map that she had been working on, and explained what she was looking for. “I asked them where their maps were kept,” she said. The priests pointed to the frescoes on the walls. “Then I asked if I could speak to someone in their cartography department.” The priests said they didn’t have one.
Burhans, who became known as the Map Lady at the Vatican, was asked if she’d be willing to create a cartography institute at the Vatican; plans to develop one have been waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic (Burhans came down with a significant case herself.) Fascinating piece depicting the gap between modern data and an ancient institution, and the notion of using data as a force for progress. Thanks to John Greenhough for sending me a copy of this article; apologies for taking months to post about it.
NASA Earth Observatory: “Researchers at the University of Michigan (UM) recently developed a new method to map the concentration of ocean microplastics around the world. The researchers used data from eight microsatellites that are part of the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission. Radio signals from GPS satellites reflect off the ocean surface, and CYGNSS satellites detect those reflections. Scientists then analyze the signals to measure the roughness of the ocean surface. These measurements provide scientists with a means to derive ocean wind speeds, which is useful for studying phenomena like hurricanes. It turns out that the signals also reveal the presence of plastic.”
A new study published in Nature Sustainability maps the Earth’s reserves of what is called “irrecoverable carbon”—that is to say, those stores of carbon in nature that, if released into the atmosphere, would not be able to be restored in the timeframe required to deal with climate change. These stores include wetlands and old-growth forests, which take longer to replenish.
Irrecoverable carbon represents 20% of the total manageable ecosystem carbon. Globally, 79.0 Gt (57%) of irrecoverable carbon is found in biomass while 60.0 Gt (43%) is in soils. […] The largest and highest-density irrecoverable carbon reserves are in the tropical forests and peatlands of the Amazon (31.5 Gt), the Congo Basin (8.2 Gt) and Insular Southeast Asia (13.1 Gt); the temperate rainforest of northwestern North America (5.0 Gt); the boreal peatlands and associated forests of eastern Canada and western Siberia (12.4 Gt); and mangroves and tidal wetlands globally (4.8 Gt).
The study argues that such reserves should be considered unexploitable; about 48 percent of it is already within protected or indigenous lands. About half the irrecoverable carbon sits on 3.3 percent of the world’s land area. [ScienceNews, GIS Lounge]
A new online map tracks tropospheric global nitrogen dioxide concentrations—which we’ve seen drop sharply this year as the pandemic shut down economic activity. “This online platform uses data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite and shows the averaged nitrogen dioxide concentrations across the globe—using a 14-day moving average. Concentrations of short-lived pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide, are indicators of changes in economic slowdowns and are comparable to changes in emissions. Using a 14 day average eliminates some effects which are caused by short term weather changes and cloud cover. The average gives an overview over the whole time period and therefore reflects trends better than shorter time periods.” [ESA]
Concentrations of NO2 in the atmosphere are highly variable in space and time: they typically vary by one order of magnitude within each day and quite substantially from one day to another because of the variations in emissions (for example the impacts of commuter traffic, weekdays and weekend days) as well as changes in the weather conditions. This is why, even if observations are available on a daily (currently available from satellites) or even hourly (ground-based observations) basis, it is necessary to acquire data for a substantial period of time in order to check that a statistically robust departure from normal conditions has emerged.
Cloud cover is a factor that needs to be taken into account as well.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s TOXNET, an interactive map that tracked pollution, chemical exposure, toxicology and other data, was shut down last month. The move has been criticized in the context of the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental protections, but the NLM insists that the decision was theirs. The data mapped by TOXNET is available from other sources, but, and this is the point, not as easily or centrally accessible. [The Hill, Newsweek]
NASA Earth Observatory: “The map above depicts changes in water storage on Earth—on the surface, underground, and locked in ice and snow—between 2002 and 2016. Shades of green represent areas where freshwater levels have increased, while browns depict areas where they have been depleted. Data were collected by the GRACE mission, which precisely measured the distance between twin spacecraft as they responded to changes in Earth’s gravity field. In sensing the subtle movements of mass around the planet, the satellites could decipher monthly variations in terrestrial water storage.” The GRACE observations form the basis of a study published this month in Nature on changes in global fresh water availability. More at the JPL’s GRACE-FO project page. [Benjamin Hennig]
NASA: “Satellites measured land and ocean life from space as early as the 1970s. But it wasn’t until the launch of the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) in 1997 that the space agency began what is now a continuous, global view of both land and ocean life. A new animation captures the entirety of this 20-year record, made possible by multiple satellites, compressing a decades-long view of life on Earth into a captivating few minutes.” Here’s a video about it:
Earlier this year, we shared the first results of this effort with pollution levels throughout the city of Oakland.
We’re just beginning to understand what’s possible with this hyper-local information and today, we’re starting to share some of our findings for the three California regions we’ve mapped: the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and California’s Central Valley (the Street View cars drove 100,000 miles, over the course of 4,000 hours to collect this data!) Scientists and air quality specialists can use this information to assist local organizations, governments, and regulators in identifying opportunities to achieve greater air quality improvements and solutions.
The Atlas for the End of the World collects a series of world maps that measure our planet’s environmental well-being. More specifically, they examine the amount of protected area in our planet’s biological hotspots, especially relative to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2020 conservation targets. Created by landscape architects, the accompanying text (by project lead Richard J. Weller) tends toward the abstruse and verbose, but the maps themselves are quite interesting. (I note that they make extensive use of the Goode homolosine projection, which is refreshing.) [Geo Lounge]
President Trump’s budget proposes eliminating the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That fact is no doubt what’s behind two publications posting maps earlier this month, only a couple of days apart, showing the environmental stresses on the Great Lakes basin.
NASA Earth Observatory: “The map above, based on data provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, shows the extent of Arctic permafrost. Any rock or soil remaining at or below 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) for two or more years is considered permafrost.” The map differentiates between continuous, discontinuous, sporadic and isolated permafrost. [NASA Earth]
Vox’s lead exposure risk map takes a nationwide look at a crisis some might have thought was limited to Flint, Michigan. “The areas where kids are at highest risk of lead exposure—an estimate calculated using government data about the surroundings—are scattered all across the country.” Lead exposure data is hard to come by, so exposure risk is calculated based on Washington State’s methodology, which uses age of housing and poverty as risk factors. [Mapbox]