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Atlas of Global Conservation maps human impact on planet

For Earth Day 2010, The Nature Conservancy and University of California Press have published The Atlas of Global Conservation, their attempt to collect “everything we know about nature on planet Earth.” The book includes a hundred maps and charts, as well as essays by leading conservation thinkers that put the information in its larger context, The...

For Earth Day 2010, The Nature Conservancy and University of California Press have published The Atlas of Global Conservation, their attempt to collect “everything we know about nature on planet Earth.”

The-Atlas-of-Global-Conservation.jpgThe book includes a hundred maps and charts, as well as essays by leading conservation thinkers that put the information in its larger context, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) says in a news release about the atlas.

The atlas brings together “for the first time such information as where animal populations are concentrated, which species are in imminent danger of extinction, where forests are disappearing most rapidly, and where nature is thriving.”

“No other resource like this exists,” says Jennifer Molnar, TNC senior scientist, and lead author and editor of the Atlas. “It describes our world in more detail than has ever been thought possible.”

Nat Geo News Watch interviewed Molnar about the new book:

The work of some seventy institutions and hundreds of scientists were involved in collating this atlas. What is the overarching theme of combining so much data from so many sources?

The Atlas of Global Conservation describes the natural world, the challenges it faces, and what we can do to protect it. It gives us the most comprehensive look at our planet today. Through our collaborations with some 70 institutions and many individual scientists, we were able to bring together for the first time maps describing the state of all the habitats on Earth–across the continents, in rivers and lakes, and in the oceans.


globally-threatened-species-legend.jpgWere there any surprising revelations that emerged from mashing all the data together?

Looking across all of the atlas’s maps, for the first time you can see how species and habitats are spread around the world, and at the same time, that nowhere on Earth is untouched by humans. We need this broad perspective to conserve the diversity of life on Earth. We need to think at a larger scale and apply new strategies to protect nature and the resources it provides us. These maps show us the extent of what needs to be done. Now that we can see the problems, we are better prepared to fix them.



water-stress-legend.jpgThe atlas is like a dashboard for the planet, showing a number of vital signs in one place. Who can use it in what way to help make more informed decisions about planning, budgets, and priorities? Can you give a specific example or two to illustrate this point?

These maps could be useful for anyone working with or relying on natural resources—whether informing international policy or providing a global perspective for more local work.

A conservation organization like The Nature Conservancy can use these maps to make decisions on where and how we work. For example, the maps showed that temperate grasslands are less protected around the world than other habitats on land. To better represent these important habitats, the Conservancy has begun working in Argentina and Mongolia, where there are still relatively large intact grasslands to protect.

These maps could also be useful for anyone interested in the environment. Many of us don’t have a lot of connection to nature in our day-to-day life, but these maps can help people see that many resources we rely on—whether clean water or fish from the ocean—are being threatened at a scale we might not have realized. By making these connections clearer, the maps could help inform people in their everyday activities like shopping in the grocery store or deciding what kind of car to buy, as well as perhaps inspiring them to get involved in larger environmental causes.

The atlas shows how surprisingly complex are Earth’s systems. But at the same time there seem to be some obvious dependencies. Are there any data sets or maps that can be seen as early warning indicators for countries and regions that trouble is looming for human populations unless corrective action is taken?


snowmelt-legend.jpgOne of the most powerful examples of the vulnerability of humans is the map showing us for the first time where snows are melting earlier in the spring due to climate change. Not only do fish and other aquatic species rely on dependable flows for food and breeding, but human communities rely on them for water supplies. Glaciers in the Himalayas are seeing some of the largest changes, and they flow into river basins that are home to a quarter of the people on Earth. This region is already experiencing changes in flood and drought patterns as a result.

The maps of invasive species show how compelling—and useful–global information can be. These species, like the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes, cause significant local damage to habitats and economies, but we need the broader perspective these maps provide to prevent invasions. For example, the global map of marine invasions shows us where species have invaded our coasts. Because most of these species are carried by ships, by comparing this map to the map of shipping lanes, we can see how invasions have occurred, and where they may happen next.


bird-species-legend.jpgWhat’s portrayed in the “Taking Action” section?

After providing a sobering view of our impacts on nature, this chapter describes the many different ways that people are working to protect it. Some of these actions can be mapped, for example, areas that have been protected and fisheries certified as sustainable. But others, such as international policy and actions of individuals, are more challenging to show on a map, but are just as important.

How can the atlas be used to monitor restoration progress and showcase evidence that conservation actually works?

These maps provide a snapshot of the state of nature and conservation efforts today. We have highlighted conservation success stories in the book, and we hope the maps will inspire and inform new actions.

One way that we can track conservation progress is by looking at these maps over time. To help facilitate this, we are publishing all the global maps online at This will allow us to maintain the atlas as a living resource–adding new and updated information as it becomes available. This way, the maps can facilitate discussions and collaboration in the conservation community, as well as empowering anyone–policymakers, industry, the general public–to use this knowledge to make more informed decisions.

fish-map.jpgfish-species-legend.jpgReviewed and posted by David Braun. The Nature Conservancy provided a review copy of The Atlas of Global Conservation for this blog post. More details and how to purchase the book can be found on the TNC website here. The maps on this page are from The Atlas of Global Conservation (University of California Press, 2010).

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn