2011 Top ten Anthropocene data visualizations

Some stunning visualizations came online in 2011. Here’s my top ten.

1. Globaia’s Anthropocene Mapping 1.2

2. International Space Station time lapse from North to South America

3. 300 years of fossil fuels in 300 seconds

4. Visualizing the global digital divide (Gregor Aisch)

5. History of the world in 100 seconds, according to Wikipedia. Watch the time ticker bottom right. Historic events in Wikipedia are cross referenced with latitude and longitude coordinates.

6. Globaia, From Ecosphere to Anthrosphere

7. NOAA, 800,000 year carbon dioxide record. This is a visualization of arguably the world’s most important dataset: the palaeo record of carbon dioxide. It shows unambiguously how far beyond natural boundaries we have travelled in just a few generations.

8. National Geographic, 7 billion

9. NOAA, the Big Heat visualized

10. Facebook. Facebook is the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution: the industrialization of friendship. (Paul Butler, technically 2010).

(I am using the term “data visualizations” quite loosely to include animations and movies.)

And there’s more…

It’s Christmas, let’s throw in a few more crackers from 2010:

BBC the Joy of Stats. Hans Rosling’s whistle-stop tour of the last 200 years (2010)

BBC, How Earth Made Us (2010)


Earth at night

Earth at night. Credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/ NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive

Earth at night. Credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/ NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive

Ten reasons why NASA’s Earth at Night is a strong contender for world’s most important image

  1. We see Earth and humanity in a whole new light. Earth at Night represents a turning point in our awareness of the scale of human civilization
  2. It is the story of population growth and wealth
  3. It shows humanity as a major driver of change at the planetary level
  4. It shows the extent and power of our civilization
  5. It tells the story of the Industrial Revolution
  6. It charts the rise of urbanization
  7. It is a good proxy for our energy consumption
  8. It separates rich countries from poor
  9. It begs the question, how far can humanity push the Earth system?
  10. It exemplifies the Anthopocene

The Great Acceleration

The Great Acceleration. Click to enlarge. Image: Felix Pharand from Global Change and the Earth System (IGBP Synthesis) Steffen et al.

The Great Acceleration. Click to enlarge. Image: Felix Pharand from Global Change and the Earth System (IGBP Synthesis) Steffen et al.

The start of the Anthropocene is the subject of intense debate. Our ancestors first began altering the landscape 10,000 years ago when they invented agriculture. Did this mark the onset of a new epoch? Did the Industrial Revolution signal the transition?

This set of 24 graphs, redrawn recently by Phelix Pharand, illustrate an explosion in the human enterprise around 1950. Was 1950 the kick-off? One lifetime away! Geologically speaking, this is a convenient date to begin: the first atomic bombs, detonated in 1945, have left a global radioactive signal in the geological record.

Each of the 24 graphs, known collectively as the Great Acceleration, begins in 1750, the start of the Industrial Revolution, and run through to 2000. If you want a closer look, click through to my Great Acceleration presentation on Slide Share.

I am working with colleagues right now to update these graphs through to 2010. We will be adding more graphs illustrating other relevant trends. Set for release in March 2012.

The astronauts

As a child I recall reading an article about the first astronauts. They reported that from space the imprint of humanity was negligible. Some scars were just about visible: the Great Wall of China and the occasional wake of an ocean liner passing between continents.

One day – sometime in the eighties – an advert appeared in a magazine. It was for a poster, a composite of satellite photographs taken of the Earth at night. There we were, impossible to miss. The sum total of humanity laid bare. The astronauts had somehow missed this important detail.

When people ask how long have I been working in global-change research I say since about the age of thirteen when the NASA poster arrived in the post. The image mesmerised me. The scale of our impact shocked me. The radials outwards from Paris. The towns and cities dotted along the Trans-Siberian railway. The ocean surface reflecting the downward facing lights from Japanese shipping fleets. The burning oil heads of the Middle East. The blazing seaboards of the United States. The vast emptiness of Africa.

I studied Astronautics and Aeronautics at university and I am now a science writer. Since 2003, I have worked full time in environmental science communications. In 2009, my family and I moved to Stockholm where I joined the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) as Director of Communications. The work of IGBP perfectly captures my interests from a very early age.

In 2000, IGBP’s vice chair at the time, Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, and Eugene Stoermer argued humanity had done enough to deserve geological status and gave the world the Anthropocene.

This blog is about the Anthropocene: the concept, the implications and the revelations. It is about science, politics and life as we begin to navigate the Anthropocene.