for National Geographic News
Step back and take in the big picture. Thousands of scientific studies assess the environmental impacts of a single road, or oil well, or mountain lodge, but the conclusions of these studies are generally disconnected. That is beginning to change.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has developed a global mapping technique, called GLOBIO, that combines these myriad conclusions into a comprehensive picture of the cumulative toll that infrastructure development is having on the planet.
"It's visible. You can even see it from space," said Christian Nellemann, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research in Norway and the project manager of GLOBIO. "Follow the roads and you will also follow the deforestation, cities, dams, and all the other impacts that follow."
GLOBIO consolidates the findings of hundreds of scientific studies, most of them published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Scientists from a number of institutions jointly analyze the information and synthesize the broader results, which are then sent out for review.
By analyzing the effects of infrastructure development in the past, researchers can build scenarios of the likely impacts of future development. "UNEP plans to use such scenarios to help predict the consequences of development decisions made today," said Tim Foresman, the director of UNEP's Environmental Information, Assessment, and Early Warning Program.
"GLOBIO is not science fiction or doomsday predictions," Nellemann said. "It allows us to chronicle with far greater accuracy land and water degradation processes that have resulted from the human expansions of the last 50 years."
"We hope GLOBIO will open the eyes of the public and the state leaders around the world, alerting them to the consequences of the choices that we are making today," he said.
UNEP released the first example of GLOBIO's power as a tool a week ago in a report on the Arctic presented at a meeting of environment ministers in Rovaniemi, Finland. They represented eight nations involved in an initiative called the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which was launched a decade ago.
The GLOBIO-based report details the impact that infrastructure development has had on the Arctic. It also offers three scenarios that scientists project for the region in the years ahead at various rates of infrastructure growth.
Nellemann said the pilot study on the Arctic drew from more than 200 scientific studies representing the findings of more than 400 international scientists with detailed knowledge of the effects of infrastructure growth. Nearly a dozen institutions coordinated the results, and the report was sent out for review by scientists who included several of the world's most prominent biodiversity experts.
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