Flying Around the Globe on a Time Machine
United Nations Environment Programme Partners with Google Earth
Nairobi, 12 September 2006 – 'Flying' around a virtual planet earth,
zooming in on environmental hotspots and comparing today's crisis zones
with yesterday's areas of natural beauty: All this has become a reality
today thanks to a partnership between the United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP) and Google Earth.
Images of retreating glaciers and melting ice in polar and mountain areas,
explosive growth of cities such as Las Vegas, forest loss in the Amazon,
rapid oil and gas development in Wyoming and Canada, forest fires across
sub-Saharan Africa and the decline of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and Lake
Chad in Africa: this and much more is being presented in a series of
'before and after' satellite images of our changing environment to over 100
million Google Earth users worldwide.
Beginning today, Google Earth – Google’s 3D virtual world browser – will
feature UNEP: Atlas of our Changing Environment, offering satellite images
of 100 environmental hotspots from around the world. The project builds on
the success of UNEP’s very popular hardcover release One Planet, Many
People: Atlas of our Changing Environment.
UNEP's Executive Director Achim Steiner said:” These satellite pictures are
a wake-up call to all of us to look at the sometimes devastating changes we
are wreaking on our planet. Through spectacular imagery, Google Earth and
UNEP offer a new way of visualizing the dangers facing our planet today. By
tapping into the global Google community, we are able to reach out to
millions of people who can mobilize and make a difference."
The printed Atlas One Planet, Many People: Atlas of our Changing
Environment was produced in cooperation with the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration (NASA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and
the University of Maryland, and launched on World Environment Day in June
UNEP: Atlas of our Changing Environment uses images from the 2005
publication together with satellite depictions of changes to African Lakes
(based on the 2006 hardcover Africa’s Lakes: Atlas of our Changing
Environment), along with several new images and updates, and brings them
into the virtual world of Google Earth. Each location features multiple
satellite images which are overlaid directly on Google Earth.
Most of the locations feature imagery from almost thirty-five years of
global coverage produced by the Landsat programme. Using this invaluable
record of our planet’s recent past, UNEP: Atlas of our Changing Environment
documents hotspots of environmental change around the world.
The project coordinator, Ashbindu Singh, of UNEP's Division of Early
Warning and Assessment said: "Google Earth technology already allows a more
informative and accessible means of delivering information about our
changing environment. By keeping pace with the changing world of technology
and media, UNEP helps the environmental community keep pace with the real
changes in our real world."
Google Earth enables users to put each image into a rich geographical
context. At Lake Kivu, Uganda, an active volcano threatens to release a
lethal cloud of carbon dioxide from the lake. The user can zoom into the
city of Goma, caught between the volcano and the lake, and view the high
resolution images showing its houses, roads and parks.
Lake Chad, a great shallow lake in West Africa which was once the sixth
largest in the world, shrunk to a wetland one tenth its original size
between 1963 and 2001. The user can follow the rivers that feed it to their
sources, which no longer provide enough water to maintain the lake. Google
Earth shows the countries and cities affected by the lake’s decline and
offers the ability to search the internet for additional information about
In the Trang Estuary along Thailand’s western shoreline, an explosion in
shrimp farming can be seen cutting into the disappearing mangrove forests
between January 1990 and October 2001. Jumping 500 km to the south, the
user can see more mangrove forest being lost to agricultural conversion and
urban expansion, as the population surrounding Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,
spreads from 40 km inland in January 1974, west to the coastal mangrove
forests in January 2005.
'Flying' 2,500 km north across Southeast Asia, China’s economic powerhouse,
Shenzhen, can be seen growing from a small city in the coastal forest in
October 1979 to a sprawling industrial city with a population approaching 5
million in the greater metropolitan area by September 2004. Spinning the
globe around to North America, enormous open pit mines in the Athabasca
region of Alberta, Canada, can be seen where vast low-quality reserves of
oil are being extracted from 'oil sands'.
Some of the new images featured on UNEP: Atlas of our Changing Environment
on Google Earth:
Two satellite images from 31 January 1990 and 22 October 2001 show mangrove
forests in the Trang River estuary in Thailand that are being rapidly
converted for aquaculture.
The mangroves are under threat from upstream discharge of wastewater,
industrial facilities and unsustainable aquaculture practices –
particularly commercial shrimp farming. From 1975 to 1993, it is estimated
that about half of Thailand's mangroves along its 2,560 km coastline were
lost. The larger area of the Had Chao Mai Marine National Park, the Ta
Libong Island Non-Hunting Area and the Trang River Estuaries has been
designated a Ramsar Wetland Site and supports over 200 bird species
including many 'critically endangered', 'endangered', 'vulnerable' and
Mangrove ecosystems are the interface between the marine and terrestrial
ecosystems and provide important services to both. The fallen leaves and
branches contribute important nutrients, making healthy nursery areas for
the breeding of many marine species and in turn creating healthy fisheries.
They are also prime habitat for migratory birds, amphibians and terrestrial
The international market for shrimp will likely continue to drive the
development of commercial shrimp farming. Protection of areas such as
Kantang will become increasingly important to preserving the dwindling
areas of viable mangrove forest throughout the tropics.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
With a population over 1.4 million (and approximately twice that number in
the greater metropolitan area), Kuala Lumpur is the largest city in
Malaysia and is growing rapidly. Its sprawl is now encroaching on the
mangrove forests at the coastline (approximately 35 km to the west of the
Landsat satellite images from 1974 through 2005 show the gradual spread of
development and the loss of mangrove forest that has resulted. By 1975,
many areas of mangrove had already been converted to agriculture. As thirty
years passed, the agricultural areas expanded and more mangroves were
converted to farms. At the same time, the images show the agricultural
areas being converted to industrial and urban land use. Elsewhere along the
Malaysian coastline, mangroves are rapidly being converted to commercial
shrimp farms. Forestry Department statistics show that peninsular Malaysia
had 85,800 hectares (214,500 acres) of mangrove swamp forests in 2003, down
from 86,497 hectares just one year earlier.
Mangrove forests are biologically diverse and highly productive ecosystems
that offer valuable habitats to a wide variety of both marine and
terrestrial species. They are being lost at an alarming rate throughout the
tropics. Protection of these areas may be needed to ensure the survival of
this valuable natural resource.
The city of Shenzhen is located just across from Hong Kong and southeast of
the Zhujian (Pearl) River Delta Region in China. The city has been the
focus of intense urbanization, known as the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone
(SSEZ). Comparison of satellite images shows the dramatic change in the
landscape from 1979 to 2004, as thousands of high-rise buildings and
factories have replaced earlier agricultural and vegetated areas.
It is estimated that over the next quarter-century, almost all population
growth will occur in cities, most of it in less developed countries. By
2030, more than 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban
areas. Already, one of every three urban dwellers lives in a slum. And in
too many of the world’s expanding towns and cities, environmental
safeguards are few and planning is haphazard.
The environmental consequences of urban growth are considerable. Cities are
prolific users of natural resources and generators of waste. They produce
most of the greenhouse gases that are causing global climate change. They
often degrade local water quality, deplete aquifers, pollute the marine
environment, foul the air and consume the land, thereby devastating
Athabasca Oil Sands, Alberta, Canada
Vast reserves of low quality oil underlie the boreal forest surrounding
Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada, in the form of 'Athabasca oil
sands'. While these reserves have been known since the early 20th century,
the high cost of extracting usable oil from these 'oil sands' has limited
the development of a viable oil sands mining industry. In 2003 the rising
cost of crude oil led to Canada reevaluating the oil sands as a viable
Canada's National Energy Board predicts $125 billion in investments for
creation and expansion of oil sands mining in the Athabasca area between
2006 and 2015 which will take production to around 3 million barrels per
day. Local people including the Native American population are concerned
that exploitation will come at too great a cost to the environment. The
government of Alberta plans to propose a surface mining area of 280,000
hectares, an area approximately four times the size of the City of Calgary.
In 1967 The Great Canadian Oil Sands Company began construction at its
Mildred Lake site. In 1974 they were joined by the Syncrude Corporation
which began construction of a mine in the same area. By early 2006 the
mining operations had expanded to cover an area roughly 30 km by 20 km.
Syncrude operates a second mine, the Aurora, approximately 30 km to the
north of Mildred Lake.
Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonia, is located on the north bank
of the River Negro at its confluence with the Solimoes River, which extends
eastward as the Amazon River. The population of Manaus grew by more that 65
per cent between 1993 and 2003 to its current population of over 1.5
Two Landsat images document the conversion of forest areas due to logging
and urbanization between 1987 and 2001. In addition to the urban expansion
evident in the area surrounding the city, increased logging and road
construction can be observed in the 2001 image.
About 15 km from Manaus, Rio Negro (Black River) meets Rio Solimoes to
create an amazing confluence of the brownish white water from the Saliomes
joining the black water (caused by the very high acidity from tannin) from
the Rio Negro.
Notes to Editors:
One Planet Many People: Atlas of Our Changing Environment and African's
Lakes: Atlas of Our Changing Environment are available to view on
http://www.unep.org or directly on
Both are available to purchase from UNEP's online bookstore earthprint.com
More Information Please Contact Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, on Tel:
+254 20 7623084 or E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Ashbindu Singh, Regional Coordinator North America, Division of Early
Warning and Assessment, on Tel: +1 202 785 0465, E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Or Elisabeth Waechter, Associate Media Officer, on Tel: +254 20 7623088,
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Google and Google Earth are trademarks of Google Inc.
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Beth Ingraham (Embedded image moved to
Information Officer file: pic07916.gif)
Head, Assessment Documentation
Division of Early Warning and
United Nations Environment
P.O. Box 30552
Nairobi, 00100, Kenya
Tel: (254-20) 7624299 (+3hr GMT)
Fax: (254-20) 7624269
Email: [log in to unmask]