A map tells you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going—in a sense it’s three tenses in one.
Maps of the New World
How do we think about our future place in a geographically altered world? A map is a good place to start.
By Lindsey Doermann
The Anthropocene is nothing if not disorienting. Things that once seemed immutable—polar ice caps, songbird migration routes, even the onset of spring—are now on the move. So how do we think about our place in a geographically altered future? A map is a good place to start. We’re accustomed to looking at maps that depict the world as it is, but cartographers of the Anthropocene are beginning to illustrate what may be—in the near and distant future. As climate change scrambles geographies, they are asking: Which parts of the world will humans find habitable in 50 years? How will species’ ranges shift? How might we think about urbanization and globalization? With maps in hand, we boldly go.
North America Sea Level Rise, ©Christopher Bretz
Concerned about humanity’s fossil fuel–burning trajectory, artist and illustrator Christopher Bretz wondered what Earth would look like if all its glaciers and icecaps melted. So he used a US Geological Survey estimate of 80 meters of sea-level rise to redraw the world’s coastlines. Even though the melting could take thousands of years, this drastic reshaping of the coasts paints a stark picture of what may come.
Europe Sea Level Rise, ©Christopher Bretz
The growth of the global south may be among the most salient threads in the story of the twenty-first century. In the cartogram-style map below, the size of the landmasses scales to estimated population numbers in 2100. By that time, Africa may be home to half of the world’s population, up from 16 percent in 2018.
In parallel with the shift in population centers, Africa is projected to house several of the world’s largest megacities. In 2010, our planet’s largest cities were distributed among the Americas and Asia. But by 2100, thanks to population growth coupled with extensive urbanization, Africa and Asia will each occupy five of the top 10 spots on the megacities list. New York City will have fallen to #22 and Mexico City to #34; only 14 of the 101 largest cities will be in Europe or the Americas.
World Population in 2100
©Worldmapper, data from the UN World Population Prospects, 2017 Revision
Megacities: ©Sean Quinn/Ensia, data from Hoornweg D and Pope K. Environment and Urbanization, 2016.
Consolidation of languages. Of the nearly 7,000 known languages in the world today, 23 of them are the mother tongue of at least 50 million people. What’s more, those 23 languages represent the native language for 4.1 billion people.
This visualization created by infographic designer and artist Alberto Lucas López depicts the current landscape of languages, but we can expect the consolidation already under way to go even further. By 2115, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter predicts that fewer than 10 percent of these languages will remain, and the ones that do stick around are likely to become simpler. Globalization is set to play a large role in this trend as cultures fragment further.
How hot will it get? Dan McCarey of the data-visualization studio Maptian wanted to illustrate the impacts of the RCP 8.5 climate scenario—an IPCC worst-case scenario in which there are no climate policy interventions. So he turned to NASA data that project daily maximum near-surface air temperatures out to the year 2100, looking at how hot things got on August 28 of various years. In all, he plotted out more than a million data points across the surface of the Earth for each time point. This visualization made the long list of the 2018 Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards.
Click on any map below to see an interactive version
Climate Analogs. Climate predictions tend toward the abstract. How exactly will we experience a three-degree temperature increase? To make future warming more relatable, researchers have developed the concept of “climate analogs,” which involve matching the predicted future climate in one location to the current climate in another. Researchers used a suite of climate models to predict the climate of 540 North American cities in the year 2080, then paired those cities’ future climates with today’s urban climates. Under a high-emissions scenario, the researchers found, the climate of the average North American city will most resemble the current climate about 850 kilometers away, mainly to the south. Under a moderate-emissions scenario, that number comes down to about 515 kilometers. For example, if high emissions continue, Washington, DC, will have a 2080 climate comparable to that of Greenwood, Mississippi; Philadelphia’s climate analog will be Memphis, Tennessee.
Bird watching. Combining the latest climate models with millions of observations from birders and scientists, Audubon scientists projected how the range of North American bird species would shift under different warming scenarios. With three degrees Celsius of warming, the common loon could lose one-quarter of its breeding range while gaining habitat in much higher latitudes.
Common Loon Habitat at 3 degrees Celsius warming. Map by Stamen Design from Audubon’s Survival by Degrees project (from 2019 temps)
Explore Audubon’s Interactive Bird Climate Visualizer Here
The New North. Of the 313 transits of the Northwest Passage ever completed, as tracked by the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, 181 have occurred since 2010. It’s no secret that Arctic sea ice is melting and that this opens up intriguing possibilities for shipping routes that go across the top of the globe.
For some transcontinental shipping, Arctic passages lop thousands of miles off routes that otherwise go through the Panama or Suez Canal. While the Northern Sea Route has become a viable route, others are still unreliable. The number of vessels transiting the Northwest Passage annually has varied from 2 to 32 over the past decade, with cargo ships being in the minority.
Since satellite observations began in 1979, the amount of Arctic sea ice in September has decreased by 13 percent per decade. In a 2019 study, UCLA researchers refined climate models and projected that sometime between 2044 and 2067, the Arctic Ocean will start to be functionally ice-free for part of each year.
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