Press Releases September 2006 - Flying Around the Globe on a Time Machine - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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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 2005.

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 Lake Chad.

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:

Kantang, Thailand

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 'threatened' species.

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 species.

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 city centre).

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.

Shenzhen, China

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 biological diversity.

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 resource.

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, Brazil

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 million.

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 or directly on and

Both are available to purchase from UNEP's online bookstore

More Information Please Contact Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, on Tel: +254 20 7623084 or E-mail:

Ashbindu Singh, Regional Coordinator North America, Division of Early Warning and Assessment, on Tel: +1 202 785 0465, E-mail:

Or Elisabeth Waechter, Associate Media Officer, on Tel: +254 20 7623088, E-mail:

Google and Google Earth are trademarks of Google Inc.

Google Contact:

Megan Quinn





Further Resources

Google Earth

One Planet Many People: Atlas of Our Changing Environment
UNEP Bestseller

Purchase the Atlas Online
Earthprint : UNEP's Online Book Shop

UNEP Publications

UNEP Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA)

UNEP Global Resource Information Database - Sioux Falls
GRID Sioux-Falls

Get free Google Earth Software and access the UNEP Atlas


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