Cheers to the United Nations Environment Programme for getting savvy and using Google Earth to post some choice then-and-now pictures of the planet. Their “Atlas of Our Changing Environment” pinpoints more than 120 places in 80 countries where things just aren’t the same as they used to be. Going one better than telling us percentages in 12-point Times New Roman, they’ve scavenged 1970s LandSat imagery and placed it side by side with recent shots.
Each scene has a lengthy caption, and in most cases the thoughtful U.N.’ers have even posted a few ground-level pictures so you can see how unfrightening it looks from our everyday myopic viewpoint. It’s all available as you tool around Google Earth (under “Featured Content”). But really, the U.N. site has a Google Earth interface embedded in it and it’s just as easy if not easier to look around.
Many of the stark differences are outrageous: the drying up of the Aral Sea, Lake Chad, Lake Hamoun; the deforestation around Santa Cruz, Bolivia; the way shrimp farms ate up Honduras‘s Gulf of Fonseca. But others are strangely underwhelming, like China’s Three Gorges Dam nightmare. From 20,000 miles up you can’t make out the drowned villages or vanishing river fauna. And no matter how godawful big the dam is, trust me on this, China is a lot bigger.
Population change takes a while to sink in, too: the way gray subdivisions subtly replaced the tan grasses of the Bay Area; or the way thousands of Sierra Leone refugees looking for firewood turned Guinea’s vivid forests to a pale minty green.
After a while, it’s refreshing to run across something we’re not responsible for. Who knew Mount St. Helens was a rolling green hillside once?